One thing that you never expect from hospice work is the frantic pace of it. The concerns of seeing new patients in a timely manner, responding to emergencies and distress calls, visiting ongoing patients regularly, and tending to families when loved ones die are a part of everyday life. All of these can batter your emotions and sanity on a bad day, leaving you to feel as if the plates just aren’t going to spin anymore. Couple these concerns with ongoing pressures to increase census, staff support, the filling out and filing of endless forms, not to mention the concerns of the home front and it’s no wonder that individuals in caring professions have high incidences of burnout.
There are many resources and professional wisdom surrounding the need to care for the caregiver. The difficulty arises in actually finding the time to put said wisdom to work. While we all need to take care of ourselves, recommendations to meditate, read, or exercise to alleviate accumulating stress often seem like unattainable goals to someone in the midst of the pressures of life and death every day. One may as well be lecturing the homeless orphan on the benefits of a college education if they want to get anywhere in life.
Success in dealing with burnout is sometimes counterintuitive. One cannot simply outlast it – the stresses of life will be there long after you’re not. Neither can one feed on it as I see some do. I’ve seen overachievers use stress as adrenaline to push them ahead in life and work, only to find it catch up to them in the form of empty relationships and pyrrhic victories. Occasionally I’ve found that success in dealing with burnout relies on letting the proper things fail. I refuse to let my family fail. This requires me to refuse to let my job fail. However my career is more than just my job or my responsibilities. These can ultimately be replaced, as painful as doing so may be. Holding on to the irreplaceable things maintains proper focus on those things. When the replaceable things fail, maintaining focus on the few really precious things in life helps to keep an even keel.
One of the blessings of being a hospice chaplain is that I get to go to church. Pastors and many other church workers rarely, I’ve found, “go to church” in the way in which we use it colloquially. As James wrote we should keep our eyes focused on Jesus, just as a gymnast on a balance beam keeps her eyes focused on that one thing that keeps her straight, not on the myriad of things that makes her fall.