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Working full-time is challenging enough, but for many, their full-time roles don’t stop when they clock out. According to statistics from 2015, over 43.5 million people in the United States were responsible for providing unpaid care to either an adult or a child. That number has increased by nearly ten million in the last five years.
With the COVID-19 pandemic isolating people, causing uncertainty about adult care facilities, and shutting down schools, more people are at risk for caregiver burnout than ever. And with so many people working as unpaid caregivers in addition to their full-time jobs, there’s a good chance your workforce is struggling to find balance, too. Learn what caretaker burnout and compassion fatigue are, the risk factors, symptoms, and how to prevent it.
What is a caregiver?
A caregiver is someone who is responsible for helping someone with their daily needs. The Family Caregiver Alliance distinguishes two types of caregivers: formal and informal. Formal caregivers provide support in a daycare, educational, medical, or assisted living facility. Informal caretakers are friends and family members who provide care for their loved ones.
Working as a professional caregiver is challenging, emotionally stressful work. However, informal caregivers face the dual challenge of having to show up for both their loved ones and their full-time jobs with responsibility and intention.
Having to manage duties at work along with obligations at home leaves little time for self-care and recovery. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, “caregivers often are so busy caring for others that they tend to neglect their own emotional, physical, and spiritual health.”
What is caregiver burnout?
Caregiving is inherently stressful. Whether you’re a parent, taking care of a friend, supporting a disabled partner, or caring for an elder, it’s not easy. Your mornings may start well before you clock in, and duties at home may prevent you from taking time for yourself or getting a good night’s rest.
When the stress goes unchecked, caregivers are at risk for burnout. Caregiver burnout is a state of overwhelm that leads to emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. The effects of caregiver burnout are similar to other types of burnout, and can lead to irritability, depression, illness, and resentment.
7 symptoms of caregiver burnout
The symptoms of caregiver burnout are very similar to symptoms of stress. Here are some warning signs that normal caregiving stress is getting out of hand:
1. Lack of interest in self-care or leisure activities
When people feel overwhelmed or exhausted, they often don’t have time for — or lose interest in — activities they used to enjoy.
2. Irritability, short-temper, and frustration
Stress and burnout can rob us of our patience and good mood. The feeling of constantly being on-call — without a break — can make us snappy and easily annoyed.
3. Trouble focusing or concentrating
4. Low energy, motivation, and poor sleep
Chronic stress and worry can disrupt our sleep, making it difficult to relax or rest at night. This creates a loop, since a poor night’s rest will inevitably leave you feeling drained during the day.
5. Increased susceptibility to illness
Poor sleep and chronic stress, coupled with inadequate self-care, makes you more susceptible to illness. You may find that you’re suddenly catching every cold that goes around, or that an old ailment begins to flare up.
6. Self-medicating or escapist behavior
In an effort to deal with the stress, some people turn to alcohol, sleeping pills, or other substances. It’s possible to self-medicate in other ways, too, so look out for coping mechanisms taken to excess.
7. Thoughts of harming yourself or the person you are caring for
It’s not uncommon for burnout and depression to manifest as anger or resentment. Frustration and overwhelm can leave you feeling angry or destructive. If this is the case, leave the setting immediately and reach out to an emergency services provider.
What causes caregiver burnout?
Providing care for a loved one is always stressful, but not every parent or caregiver experiences burnout. Here are some factors that compound normal stress into caretaker burnout:
Lack of support
The most common risk factor for caregiver burnout is a lack of support. A caregiver may feel isolated, disconnected from other friends and family, or like they’re the only one in a position to help their loved one.
Lack of resources
Financial stress and social isolation can make caregiving more difficult. A lack of available resources may leave caregivers feeling as if informal, unpaid care is their only and best choice. They may cut down on self-care or other necessities to try to save money.
Individuals that already have underlying mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression, are especially susceptible to caregiver burnout. The uncertainty and stress of being a caregiver, especially for someone with an illness, can decimate support systems that would otherwise insulate against that stress.
Uncertainty about the future
Many caregivers find themselves “stuck” in their roles for the foreseeable future. This makes it difficult for them to make other plans or envision a reprieve from the stress of caregiving. They may worry about whether or not the care they’re providing is adequate or sustainable. This uncertainty can make caregivers feel a lack of control — not only over their family member's health issues, but in their own life.
What is compassion fatigue?
When you deal with other people’s trauma — whether on a personal or professional basis — day in and day out, you may begin to feel worn out, overwhelmed, and mentally exhausted. This experience is known as compassion fatigue. Those with compassion fatigue tend to always feel that it is their responsibility to help others.
Compassion fatigue results from consistent secondhand exposure to trauma, pain, and suffering. People that work in caregiving professions, like medical personnel and therapists, are at high risk. That’s because their daily work involves helping people process the painful experiences that brought them to seek help in the first place.
If the loved one that you take care of is dealing with a particularly painful or traumatic illness, you may develop compassion fatigue. The symptoms are similar to, and can exacerbate, caregiver burnout.
5 tips to cope with — and prevent — caregiver burnout
If you’re experiencing caregiver burnout, the first thing to do — no matter how difficult or impossible it seems — is to remove yourself from the situation. If no one else is available to care for your loved one, you still need to step away, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It’s much more difficult to handle a stressful situation while you’re still in the midst of it.
1. Create a self-care plan
Self-care isn’t just about getting massages and going out for mimosas. It can be any activity that helps to lower your stress level — and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. Just as you create a plan for taking care of your family or your responsibilities at work, you can plan when you’ll make time to check in with yourself. Give yourself a time every day or every week where you'll take care of your own health.
2. Ask for help
Many of us struggle with asking for help, even when we know we need it. Those of us with caregiving responsibilities tend to be modest about asking for assistance, since we don’t want to put others “out” or make anyone feel like a burden. Sometimes, we’re too overwhelmed to even verbalize the kind of help we need, and it seems easier to just tackle it ourselves.
Even if you don’t have close friends or family, there are usually resources available to help. You can contact a social worker or other professional to ask for free or low-cost resources that might be available. Medicare may offer funds for transportation, home health care, and adult day care. For children, most states offer low-cost or sliding scale after-school and daycare programs.
If none of those options seem feasible, talk to your neighbors and people in your community. You may find someone who is willing to trade off caregiving responsibilities or help you with other tasks. Check around your community about caregiver support groups. Nursing homes and other facilities for older adults are a great place to start. Schools and other parents usually have great resources for kids.
Additionally, if the situation is affecting your well-being or performance at work, talk to human resources. They may be able to refer you to resources, such as an employee assistance program, that are designed to help in difficult times.
3. Handle the basics
You’re managing medication, playing chauffeur, and cooking meals — but how much of that do you do for yourself? Take twenty minutes and do a self-care audit. Ask yourself the following questions:
- When’s the last time you ate? How often do you eat? Are the meals nourishing and adequate?
- How much water are you drinking? How often?
- When’s the last time you saw a doctor? A therapist?
- Are you up-to-date on all your personal medications? Vitamins? Supplements?
- Are you exercising and getting outdoors regularly?
- What is the last thing you did that wasn’t related to work or family responsibilities?
- Do you have any health problems, physical ailments, or complaints that you’ve been putting off seeing a doctor about?
- How many days off do you have per week?
- How many hours per night do you sleep?
- Has your alcohol or substance use increased recently?
Many caregivers feel selfish, guilty, or overwhelmed when they think about making time for their own needs. However, protecting your own well-being also protects your ability to care for others. If your basic needs aren’t covered, what will happen to the people you take care of? If you were in the same situation, would you want your caregiver to be healthy or exhausted?
4. Set boundaries
A key part of implementing your wellness plan will be setting new boundaries. At first, this will likely feel awkward. But boundaries are like habits — over time, you’ll think less about them and they’ll become easier to enforce.
Being clear about your boundaries starts with understanding why you are enforcing them. Without connecting to the “why,” it’ll feel more arbitrary and less meaningful. For example, if you know that you need to go to bed by eleven in order to wake up on time for work, it’s easier to turn off the TV when it starts getting late.
Self-care works the same way. Begin paying attention to the effects of both poor and consistent self-care. For example, do you find that you’re more productive and in a better mood when you get a good night’s sleep? Does that positively impact how you care for your family?
5. Maintain perspective
Life’s difficulties have a way of taking up our entire focus. The truth is, caregiving responsibilities don’t last forever. People grow up, recover, or sometimes pass away. As every haggard parent has heard from a well-meaning friend, “Enjoy it while it lasts — they grow up so fast!”
In those moments where it feels like life is going to be this overwhelming forever, try to bring your attention to the present moment. Remember that you are caring for your loved one — whether adult or child, friend or family — because you want to spend time with them. Your presence provides much more than help with daily tasks. You remind them that they are important, loved, and create memories that both of you will treasure for a lifetime.
When things get hard, try — as best you can — to connect to the person behind the needs. What did you enjoy doing together when things weren’t so challenging? What can you do together now that both of you would enjoy? Taking a different approach, even if it’s just in mindset, may help relieve caregiver stress.
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Being a caregiver is about supporting others, but it’s not something that you can do alone. As the saying goes, “It takes a village.” While self-care and setting boundaries is important, the best thing that you can do to avoid caregiver burnout is to ask for help. You don’t have to take on everything yourself, and when you’re supported, you’re in a better position to help others.
If you’re a people manager, know that a good number of your team members are likely juggling the responsibilities of work and home on a constant basis. They may be frustrated, overwhelmed, scared, sad, and yes — burnt out.
You can support them by learning to recognize the signs of caregiver burnout. If you see it, talk to them about how they can create a better work-life balance and how you can help. Letting them know that they’re not alone can help them keep it together — and help you keep them on board.
BetterUp Staff Writer