If there’s one thing the pandemic has reminded us, it’s the importance of boundaries.
As part of our ‘Learning from COVID-19’ series, we interviewed youth workers across the state about how you’ve adapted throughout the pandemic, and created resources that centralise what’s been learned.
Tellingly, when we ask people what support they need in their work going forward, we normally get one of two responses:
- “I feel saturated with resources and information about ‘what to do’ in this pandemic. I’m tired! I just want acknowledgment that it’s been hard.”
- “I need practical resources. I would really like a step-by-step guide to XYZ challenge I’ve been having.”
Reflecting on which of these resonates with you is a good starting point for figuring out your ‘burnout boundary’. That is, understanding what you need to ask for at a certain time to sustain yourself, in order to prevent burnout. Let’s look at a case study for each category and what we can learn from their experiences.
Feeling seen and supported: Meg Capurso, Wellington Shire Council
Meg Capurso is the Youth Liaison Coordinator at Wellington Shire Council on Gunaikurnai land. Meg coordinates the Wellington Youth Services Network (WYSN), which is a network for local youth workers. During COVID-19, they refocused on having monthly meetings with more small group discussion time. Meg shared how this often became time to share struggles, because you didn’t get opportunities to just sit down and talk them out elsewhere. Some of these pandemic challenges that were repeatedly identified included:
- The time-consuming nature of maintaining contact
- The difficulty of building relationships in the virtual space, where you didn’t have one pre-lockdown
- ...And then coming out of lockdown, how to reengage, and how to do that in an uncertain environment!
- Misaligned workplace expectations despite the huge limitations, or a lack of understanding of how the nature of the work is changing
- The difficulty to see that you’d achieved anything, particularly because lots of work was internal
- Having good ideas for workarounds against challenges, but running out of energy
- Managing your own personal feelings about pandemic restrictions, and validating yourself as someone who is also going through this
We spoke with Meg at length about how these are all valid frustrations, and there aren’t easy ‘solutions’. This quote of hers felt so affirming:
I was really surprised at my personal reactions to restrictions. But it was good, because it certainly highlighted how other people could be feeling that huge array of emotions and responses to COVID across the community, and how gentle we needed to be with each other in that time, including young people…I have fairly high expectations of the young people that I work with. So it was a good reminder to me to just, you know, chill a bit.–Meg Capurso
This story demonstrates what has perhaps been the single most identified ‘COVID silver lining’ in the youth sector: the huge increase of support networks, collaboration or ‘joining forces’ at a level we weren’t doing before.
Meg described how initially she was quite cynical about if it was worth putting so much time into transferring everything online considering how many people were actually engaging, and how to even evaluate that engagement. She also suggested this was possibly a result of feeling unable to ‘match’ the amazing work she saw others doing to adapt to the pandemic. To quote Meg again:
But then I thought, we’re all online, why are we all trying to compete? Like, why don’t I just send my young people here over to wherever, where they’re doing it really well, and they’ve got the resources to do that. So that’s what I’d end up doing, and then would just be sharing things that other people were doing, because why not?–Meg Capurso
We’ve heard this same story so many times and it’s still always worth reflecting on – we don’t have to do this alone, even if it can feel that way. Ask yourself (or others!), who can you connect with that’s going to help you share resources, piggyback off each other’s work, or run the same activities together? And not just connecting for the sake of ‘working together’ - affirming our challenges is a valid and valuable enough reason.
Practical help and information: Dianne (Di) Garner, Whitelion Youth
Dianne Garner is the Victorian State Manager at Whitelion Youth, working on the Land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Throughout the pandemic, she has been supporting managers and project staff through the unique challenges of working through the pandemic. Dianne shares examples of the practical advice she’s given and actions she’s facilitated to make work more sustainable and minimise burnout.
Increased personal commitments when working from home
During lockdowns in particular, factors such as care responsibilities and varying supports available can impact staff’s comfort and capacity working from home. Dianne tells of a manager who was balancing the stress of being at home, the shift in parental load with their children, and managing their team through fluctuating workloads due to the pandemic. They also felt caught between doing additional work to make pandemic adjustments, and doing usual tasks and activities. This resulted in feeling like they weren’t accomplishing what they would’ve liked.
Dianne took time with this manager to understand and break down their commitments into short and longer-term components. Importantly, they approached this holistically. They looked at both work and personal responsibilities and activities, as trying to force them apart when both are occurring at home can feel futile. Dianne’s tips include:
- Start with the personal: what’s occurring in the home environment? What’s required across a week, and how can that be achieved?
- What are the work commitments in the same week? Where do they fit? Should certain tasks be moved to a different day or week so they don’t clash with significant personal commitments? What flexibility exists within the work environment to support you? For example, working different hours.
- For both personal and work needs, ask yourself:
- What must be done?
- What can be put on hold?
- What can be given to someone else?
If it can't be done, it's actually alright to pause, giving people permission to actually stop doing certain things. Now making that happen was a bit harder than that! But actually just saying, ‘you can't, we can't, something has to give. You can't do all that,’ allows people to think differently and make changes. Having a conversation and mapping out commitments with people is essential for people to see and understand what they were doing and why they may be feeling overwhelmed … in the pre-COVID world that may not have been considered possible. I think we had to free ourselves up a bit to feel okay to do it differently. And whilst it might not have been ideal in one way, in another way, it was meeting a need. The impact of suddenly bringing personal and working lives together into working from home, accompanied by strict restrictions to movement outside the home required, and continues to require, different approaches be considered and supported.–Dianne Garner
The slides below are templates for you to use this strategy. Click to download.
The increased toll on managers to be doing a lot more staff support
A unique pandemic challenge that Dianne has observed is that while program staff have reported that their workload dipped at particular times, managers’ workloads have escalated with tasks like:
- More contact time with staff to support them
- Supporting stakeholders and networks
- Reviewing policies, or creating new ones, to make them pandemic-appropriate
Managers in turn have felt increased pressure between wanting to resolve challenges, support everyone, and there just not being enough hours in the day!
Dianne advises that as a supervisor, it’s important to explicitly and proactively give staff permission to stop doing some things. This has been a learning curve for everyone as staff may weigh several tasks as being of equal importance. It’s not just a matter of giving a direction to ‘put work down’, but coaching people through this.
TIP: Ask questions like, what do you have the most support with? What task or project needs YOU specifically for it to be completed? Is there something in your work that you feel stretched to provide, that you could be referring to people elsewhere?
With sudden shifts to working from home, everyone required increased support and supervision. This has presented challenges of isolation from peers, supervisors and young people, particularly in making practice-related decisions.
It's about trying to find that balance of managing, supporting and directing care and service, but not ‘big brothering’ – finding ways to support without needing an account of everything that people are doing. Acknowledging and understanding the pandemic - that it's weird, that it's different. And everyone has different levels of capacity and capability, in terms of navigating and managing the new environment.–Dianne Garner
Dianne has often encouraged others to “[seek] peer advice, internal and external, not always supervisory advice.” Increased opportunities for staffing teams and groups to meet, check in and problem-solve have been frequent. This not only supports staff confidence and autonomy to manage their own burnout boundaries, it also allows managers time for everyone.
A key part of preventing burnout is naming your boundaries. A good measuring rod to keep on-hand for this is asking yourself whether you need:
- to feel seen and supported,
- to get practical help and information, or
- maybe something else! In that case, our general and pandemic-specific self-care resources may be useful.