This is part of a series, “The Great American Burnout,” that focuses on interviews with Mainers who experienced burnout during the pandemic. Sam Spadafore sat down with LCPC turned realtor Kary Goodman to share her story on leaving the social services industry due to burnout.
Kary Goodman (she/her) worked social services for eleven years. She started in direct care, then program management, and then case management, all while working on her Masters in Social Work from University of Southern Maine. After getting her LCPC license and working in private practice, she landed in an agency as a clinical supervisor about three years ago.
A clinical supervisor oversees the counselors and the psychologist, helping orchestrate the treatment for the client to best serve their needs.
This role was a step removed from client-facing work that Goodman had done leading up to that point. Though it was “great, rewarding work” for her, the pandemic threw most social service workers a curveball.
As the need for services increased, so did Goodman’s workload, leading her to step back into the field of client support. Goodman explains, “About a year and three months ago is when my burnout hit its worst and I thought, ‘I cannot do this forever, it’s just terrible.’ That’s when I got my real estate license. And then I did both for a while which was even more burnout.”
When the pandemic hit, several clinicians stepped out, leaving current clients needing services and the waitlist still a mile long. The supervisors remaining at the agency took on as many clients as they could while juggling their regular work load.
Goodman asked for a plan to return to her full supervisory role, not just because she felt taken advantage of, but also because she wasn’t providing the best services for the clients. “I didn’t ask for additional pay, but I did want support, and I wanted to do my job well and not be torn in two.”
The response was, “It’s a pandemic.” No one knew what was going to happen in the next few weeks let alone the next year.
In social services, “people need us, so we just have to hang on,” Goodman tells me. “People need us so we need to keep working for less until rates go up from MaineCare. Because people need us, we can’t stop our work to advocate on our own behalf, for more money or better working conditions. People need us, until there’s none of us left to give.”
The revolving door of bright, fresh social workers experiencing burnout and moving on is a problem everywhere.
“We never really better our support or pay so we just cycle through, over and over again, these really amazing, incredible individuals who want to help people. And then we kind of just destroy them, rip them apart, or take advantage of their niceness or naivete. And it won’t change until we change how we treat our providers.”
Goodman says employers see caregivers’ needs as secondary and so does society.
Delays in payments from insurance companies is just one of the outrages Goodman experienced first hand, “Anthem is a huge culprit in this, so is Maine Community Health Options. Really it’s all private insurers. They make people jump through hoops to get paid. People can go years without getting paid… and they spend just as much time on the phone with the representatives as they do with their clients.”
The pandemic exacerbated already challenging day-to-day work. Workers were building the plane as they flew it: navigating online therapy sessions, sanitizing work places, quarantining from family, even signing paperwork became a hurdle. Scheduling selfcare, taking vacations, setting boundaries with clients, and mapping out your own schedule suddenly went out the window.
“I had very good boundaries and I taught people that as a supervisor. During the pandemic there was a constant lack of balance because we were constantly needed,” Goodman notes.
Goodman realized it had reached the point of no return in August of 2020. She had the day off to celebrate her mom’s birthday. Upon waking up that morning, she thought, “‘I can’t do this anymore. I just absolutely can’t do this anymore. This is killing me and life is too short.’”
“The agency I was at, it’s not a unique experience,” Goodman recounts. “It was the overall feeling in social services that I always came second. I thought, ‘I don’t have to come second. I love helping people and that’s why I was in social services, but does it have to be at the cost of my own happiness, my own health, my own wealth?’”
“Through the pandemic, when I was doing both clinical and supervisory work, I really didn’t feel confident in my work because I was always scrambling. There was so much on my plate, I felt like my ability to support people really declined. It almost felt like I was leaving the field in disgrace. So to go to a new field, where I need to be confident in my ability to help people, I was rendered incapable. I had to take a long hard look at my performance in social services and what had led me to my declined ability to do my job, and to rebuild my confidence.”
When she finally left social work for good, she slept almost around the clock for four weeks straight. With time to reflect on her eleven-year career in support services, Goodman has ideas about how to prevent further worker burnout.
First, higher rates. It takes about 67 credits and 1500 clinical hours and a clinical license to practice as a social worker. “To only be reimbursed $100 an hour [for team services], and have everyone be paid [out of] that, is simply not enough,” argues Goodman.
Second, respect. Respecting not only the amount of work it takes to do the job, but also the energy and focus required outside the job to turn up to work prepared to handle intense pressures. If a social worker is having a personal crisis, they can’t bring it with them to work.
Third, workers are people, too. Goodman wants employers to treat their workers as individuals with their own needs. Therapists are expected to always be compassionate, even if the client is being abusive, hateful, or emotionally damaging to them. “We shouldn’t be hurt in the process of doing our jobs,” warns Goodman. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be demanding human level treatment from our own clients.”
Goodman noted that psychiatrists actually have the highest suicide rate among any profession. A study showed that nearly 30% of psychologists have felt suicidal and nearly 4% have attempted to take their own lives.
“People that set out to help other people should not be put in harm’s way,” Goodman concludes. “I wish that people knew some of the most incredible people I know are therapists.”
Under the pressures of end-stage capitalism, we’re left with few options to address society’s greatest needs. Our most passionate and knowledgeable care workers are asked to give more of themselves when nothing remains in the tank. Without radical changes, workers like Goodman will continue to be the casualties of a system that pushes people too far, for far too long.
Sam Spadafore (He/him, they/them) is a white, queer, gay, nonbinary trans man currently living on settled Wabanaki tribal land known as Portland, Maine. Sam writes poetry and articles focusing on mental health, Queer and Trans issues, sex and sexuality. They are also a consent educator, actor, activist, and steering committee member at MaineTransNet. Check out what Sam’s been up to at samspadaforeofficial.com.