Today’s behavioral health agencies are under more pressure than ever to measure and improve outcomes, reduce costs, adapt to changing market and regulatory conditions. As a result of these sometimes competing pressures, burnout and compassion fatigue are ever present concerns in today’s workplace. Burnout and compassion fatigue can have serious implications for the health and wellbeing of our workforce, budgets, and perhaps more importantly—on client interactions and outcomes. Burnout among providers of mental health care has previously been documented (Vilardaga et. al., 2011; Broome, Knight, Edwards, & Flynn, 2009).
Symptoms of employee burnout and compassion fatigue can include:
- Increased absenteeism
- Increased turnover
- Less effective interactions with clients
- Increased resistance to new ideas and initiatives
Establishing a systematic approach to measuring and addressing employee burnout, compassion satisfaction, and compassion fatigue is an important, but often overlooked aspect of running today’s behavioral health organizations.
Focusing on employee wellness at the leadership level can have a real difference in the culture of an organization and employee wellness.
At The Mental Health Association of New York City’s Here2Help Connect behavioral health call center, operator of 1-800-LIFENET, 1-877-8-HOPENY, and several other behavioral health and crisis intervention services, growth in volume of calls has outpaced funding levels. In order to effectively serve our clients around the clock, we have had to make a number of adjustments, including asking more and more of our workforce.
Concerned about the impact on our employees, the management team decided to more formally measure and address burnout, compassion satisfaction, and compassion fatigue. We began twice yearly confidential employee wellness surveys to measure and monitor the health of our workforce.
We also utilized the Professional Quality of Life scale which measures Compassion Satisfaction, and Compassion Fatigue (with the subscales of Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress), is a useful and relatively easy survey to implement in order to better measure and understand levels of burnout, compassion satisfaction, and compassion fatigue. The Professional Quality of Life scale can provide quantifiable information to inform approaches to managing employees.
The initial employee survey revealed a workforce in which Compassion Satisfaction was average, Burnout was average and Secondary Traumatic Stress was low. Based on the findings, we decided to enhance our practices to reduce burnout even further. We embarked on a series of initiatives to reach our low burnout goal and our 6-month follow-up survey revealed that Compassion Satisfaction remained average, but that employee burnout was low, a statistically significant finding.
In order to move from average to low burnout, we implemented a multipronged approach. We focused efforts on better training and supervision, particularly with attention to:
- Coping skills
- Psychoeducation on the effects of working in the helping profession
We also made deliberate efforts to be more diligent in soliciting ideas and recommendations from all levels within in the organization and make efforts to incorporate them into our ongoing business objectives. We also launched an employee-led Wellness Committee which was empowered to organize and host quarterly appreciation events and to sponsor wellness activities throughout the year.
Lessons learned from MHA-NYC’s efforts that could be applied to other behavioral health organizations:
- The importance of embracing and supporting wellness as a business objective
- Data-driven approaches provide quantifiable and actionable information
- Trusting and empowering employees improves workplace wellness
- Formally incorporating conversations on self-care and coping skills as part of orientation and ongoing supervision reinforces commitment and keeps the team focused on self-care
- Establishing a wellness goal as part of a team’s performance measures provides focus and reinforces commitment as part of business strategy.
We are strong believers that organizations that make it a priority to commit to worker health, emotional wellness, safety and satisfaction are most likely to see a reduction in the signs and symptoms of workplace stress. The organization’s ability to value and respond to employee needs is central to igniting passion, purpose and optimal performance in the workplace.