Serving the Servers: How Chaplains Can Help Prevent Burnout


The Rev Daphne Preece (right) gives support to a member of staff. Photograph: Milton Keynes University hospital NHS foundation trust/The Guardian

Burnout is a common problem for those in helping professions, and while the word or term “burnout” may be used without much thought at times, it is a real problem with specific features. Maslach noted that the features of burnout are multifaceted, including  “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment”. Since caregiver burnout was first described in the early ’70’s a great deal of material has been written in order to study its effects and possible ways to alleviate it. Because of their visible role in the workplaces where they serve, chaplains can become a resource to help their coworkers prevent burnout and provide staff support as well as indirectly provide better patient outcomes.

People in the helping professions suffer some of the highest rates of job-related burnout and depression. This not only includes nurses but doctors, aides, social workers and even administrators.

  • Aides must care for individuals who may not be able to express appreciation for their help, and may even be resistant or combative with care. The work they do is often physically strenuous and hazardous: a research study by RTI International found that 60% of CNA’s in nursing homes incurred work-related injuries during the course of their career. Some of these injuries prevented them from ever going back to work. In addition, some CNA’s may work two jobs in order to help make ends meet.
  • Social workers often carry large caseloads and may be required to provide counseling and emotional support when they themselves feel drained. Social workers also may be the ones who must bring up tough decisions to family members, such as the need for placement for a parent or pointing out unsafe situations. Therefore patients and families may see social workers as intruders who are judging them or trying to break up their home, rather than someone who is there to support them.
  • The burnout and stress felt among nurses has been well documented. In a recent study of 257 hospital nurses, 85% said their work made them feel tired overall and 63% said they were burned out due to their work. Even though nursing turnover rates have started to decrease for the first time in a decade (according to a 2017 NSI study) hospitals and agencies still have a difficult time fully staffing their nursing pools, leading to increased stress, fatigue, and overtime, which all contribute to burnout.
  • While burnout among nurses may be decreasing, the rate among physicians seems to have risen sharply over the past few years, from 40% in 2013 to just over 50% in 2017 according to Medscape. Burnout among doctors can lead to a cascade of problems down the line, including medication errors and a lack of engagement with other caregivers.

Given the prevalence of burnout and stress among health care workers, it’s important to note how chaplains can not only be of benefit to the patients in their care, but to hospital and facility staff as well.

Chaplains can provide support to clinical staff both formally and informally. Many chaplains I know who work in health care provide some sort of regular service to the staff they work with. Some provide a blessing service for nursing staff where they anoint their hands and pray for them. Others will gather staff together after a death for prayer and recognition of their hard work. In some cases a death or particular case could be especially traumatic for the staff involved. At those times it can be very beneficial to gather them together to vent their feelings and allow space for them to process them. More often than not, this emotional processing happens in a vacuum and can contribute to detachment, anxiety, depression and eventual burnout.

There are more informal but no less personal ways to provide support to staff as well. For example, I work with our HR department to provide support to staff who may be going through a personal difficulty or loss. A personal call or even an email of support can go far in helping staff know they are cared for. Taking advantage of unplanned opportunities to help is also very beneficial. Helping an aide to get supplies or assisting with rolling a patient in bed is not only practical but shows staff that you’re willing to do what they do and be with them in their work.

How all of this happens should be tailored not only to the needs of the staff but I feel to the overall personality of the organization. Some may be uncomfortable with “touchy-feely” exercises like guided meditation or yoga, but would welcome educational opportunities or more concrete expressions of care. Other organizations may be much more open to explicitly spiritual practices, and may even expect it from their chaplain. Check in with your administrator and supervisor regarding what needs there may be and brainstorm ideas to help your staff in ways consistent with your organization’s mission.

The point is that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for providing spiritual care to staff. By providing the same care to staff that we provide our patients – empathy, positive regard, active listening, presence – chaplains can make their workplaces not only more vibrant and caring but improve overall care to patients as well.

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