This is Part One of an ongoing series focused on the increasing phenomena of burnout in the work place. Please read to the end to find out how you can connect with the authors to contribute your story.

Part One: Introduction

Driving up Route 1 in Washington County, late September, foliage was at its peak. The trees were various shades of golden yellow, and deep amber red. The air had not yet reached that autumn crispness, and the light only enhanced the golden quality of the leaves. It was a moment of tranquil stillness, a reprieve from a particularly hectic start to the fall season when the need for shelter becomes urgent for unhoused Mainers as we move closer to the longest and coldest nights of the year. At the time, I was a caseworker for a social service agency in Portland, driving my client four hours from Portland up to the only assisted living facility we could find that would quickly accept him and that took MaineCare. He’d been unsheltered, on and off, for the past several years, and this seemed like the last opportunity to get him somewhere inside before the winter. He was hesitant to go, however. Washington County is quite isolated; he would be far from where he’d grown up, miles away from any large town, and at least a mile walk to the nearest grocery store. I tried to stay positive and optimistic. I played some of his favorites, Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, while he smoked cigarettes out the window. Eventually we arrived at the facility, said our goodbyes, and I began the journey back to Portland.

The entire way back I had a sinking feeling in my chest that he would leave the facility. In that moment of doubt, suddenly all the work I’d done the entire last year as a caseworker felt meaningless. I felt like I was having little to no positive impact upon my clients’ lives. I couldn’t shake that feeling for the rest of the drive and, in the days that followed, it only got worse. I was exhausted all the time. Coming home, all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch and sleep. Going to bed, I would think about all the tasks I had to do the next morning, prioritizing the clients I was most worried about. I was no longer enjoying the work with the same enthusiasm as when I first started. And even the accomplishments I had, the times my supervisor told me I was doing good work, I didn’t believe them. 

In the 1970’s the German Born American Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined a term to describe a phenomenon that he had not only witnessed, but also experienced, while seeing clients at his clinic in New York. “Burnout” found its way into the American lexicon, and remains today. “Burnout really is a response to stress,” wrote Freudenberger. “It’s a response to frustration. It’s a response to a demand that an individual may make upon themself in terms of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.”  Freudenberger’s definition is an apt description for what I was experiencing. My inexperience and lack of proper training made it difficult for me to handle complex cases, where clients are denied housing option after housing option, turned away from shelters, unable to find a steady source of income. But I was beginning to realize that no amount of training or experience could make up for the reality that there were no solutions for many of my unsheltered clients, and with eviction moratoriums around the country set to expire, leaving many renters more vulnerable than ever before, things would only get worse. A week after I dropped my client at the shelter in Washington County, he called me in distress. I offered what assistance I could, but shortly thereafter, just as I had feared, he walked off the premises and didn’t return. In my job (as with so many workers in “helping” professions like nursing, teaching, and social work) successful outcomes, let alone perfect ones, are vanishing points on the horizon. 

The late anthropologist David Graber wrote in a 2013 essay for Strike! Magazine entitled On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, “In our society, there seems to be a general rule that the more obvious one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it.” It took the COVID-19 pandemic to shed light on the full breadth of the injustices that workers in these professions have been subjected to forever: long hours of hard, underpaid work, abusive customers who are “always right,” forced overtime, and poor management that itself qualifies as abuse. Add to that fears of contracting and spreading a novel and deadly virus, and it’s enough to make you realize your labor is worth so much more than wages that don’t even cover your rent. Workers around this country have indeed been paying for it during these last eighteen months, particularly in the risk to health and safety. Positions deemed essential during the early days of the pandemic carried greater exposure risk. Now, with masking and vaccination efforts failing, and hazard pay protections being scaled back, the risks are even greater.

Graber, who died suddenly in 2020, couldn’t have foreseen what would happen in August of 2021:  4.3 million Americans  would quit their jobs, approximately 2.9 percent of the overall American workforce. Roughly 892,000 of those 4 million were food service and hotel industry workers, 534,000 were health care and social assistance workers, plus an additional 70,000 state and local education workers. Dubbed by some as “The Great Resignation,” the walk-offs of 2021 set the record for more resignations than previously recorded by the Department of Labor. 

I was one of them. The work had been taking a significant strain on my mental health. Every time I tried to bring this up to my supervisors, or ask for more support, I was either told that I didn’t seem to be motivated enough to properly do my job, or they simply brushed my concerns away. I was surprised at their responses because I didn’t think my motivation was at all the issue. These were issues that affected every caseworker, and which affected every caseworker’s mental health. Every single one of my coworkers was experiencing the same stress. Time after time, when we asked for more support, or when I made specific requests around mental health, they were brushed aside. After taking a leave of absence for three weeks in October, I left my job in early November. 

Some workers today are choosing to leave their jobs for better wages, benefits, and hours, but the onus of this tight labor market also rests on employers who cause their workers the mental exhaustion and burnout that forces them to leave their jobs. There is a vastly deteriorating social and economic context in which caring and service work is performed. Workers can no longer bear the brunt of that deterioration. 

In the coming weeks we are looking to explore stories from Maine workers about their experience working in the service and helping professions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our primary focus is on workers who have left their profession due to mental exhaustion and burnout which can largely be attributed to both their employers inability to address said exhaustion, or how their employer ultimately contributed to or created the burnout and exhaustion they experience. We will share what mental health and labor experts have recommended as best practices around responding to burnout and provide our own recommendations on how employers can prevent and respond to employee burnout. Most importantly, we seek to provide resources to workers who are dealing with burnout in workplaces that refuse to acknowledge or address their own part in it.

If you have a story to tell us about your experience with burnout and working through the pandemic in the service or helping industry, please contact us at: ewefald@gmail.com.

Eric Wefald (he/him, they/them) is a writer and former caseworker living in Portland, Maine. He is at work on his first book.

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.