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Who’s at risk for burnout?

Want a disaster responder to take a day off? Try telling a pit bull to let go.

BY SUSAN KIM | DENVER | June 23, 2005

"We all have inside of us a tremendous need to be needed."

—Gordon Knuckey

Want a disaster responder to take a day off? Try telling a pit bull to let go.

When they hear themselves compared to the dog breed stereotypically known for its strong jaws and vicious bite, these caregivers look around at each other with a somewhat guilty laugh. They know they’re pit bulls.

At the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster conference in Denver, Colo., they’re up, out of their chairs, forming a “human continuum” of behaviors they see in themselves.

Mary Hughes Gaudreau, director of care ministries for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, throws statements out at the group. “If you disagree with this statement, stand over here. If you agree with this statement over here. You form a line, a human continuum. Ready?”

She reads a statement: “There have been times when I thought people experiencing a disaster should just get over it.”

Some responders unhesitatingly agree, strolling over to the end of the line. Others veer toward the “disagree” end of the room. They good-naturedly rib each other about their choices. “You liars,” laughs a responder who agreed with the statement, pointing at the other end of the line. “Everybody has thought that at one time or another.”

As Gaudreau continues to read the statements - another is “I find myself wanting to be in charge of everything related to the disaster” - responders move around in clumps.

They clamber over each other, running into chairs, and they learn something as they form their human continuum: Every single one of them is at risk for burnout.

Burnout - the garden variety, that is - is like a low-grade fever that comes on gradually and makes us feel ineffective over time, explains Gaudreau, who is also a consultant for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). “It gives us feelings of helplessness.”

She also explains the important difference between burnout and compassion fatigue. “Compassion fatigue occurs when you start taking on, rather quickly, the symptoms of persons who have experienced trauma.”

People suffering from compassion fatigue should see a mental health professional, says Gaudreau. “That is the more serious condition.”

Caregivers who spend their time helping others need to examine their own personal trauma, she also suggests. “The longer we are in this work of disaster response, the more important it is that we have addressed our own personal history of trauma.”

Those personal histories vary widely - but the innate tendencies of disaster responders can be surprisingly similar. Gordon Knuckey - a seasoned disaster responder who jokingly says he’s been in disaster work since the time of the Wright brothers - remembers examining the effects of responder burnout in 1992, after Hurricane Hugo.

Knuckey is also a consultant for UMCOR. “We had not really been sensitive to our front-line troops,” he says, meaning caregivers in the thick of the disaster. “But we began to notice all kinds of symptoms of burnout were showing up in clergy and in lay helpers.”

Then, in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit, Knuckey and others noticed clergy were losing interest in their careers, their divorce rate went up, and their rate of physical illness went up. And it wasn’t just the United Methodists, either, adds Knuckey.

“I have a feeling you’re all glued together the same way,” he says, scanning the room full of representatives from faith-based and voluntary agencies from all walks of life and faiths.

“We all have inside of us a tremendous need to be needed,” he says - which isn’t a negative characteristic in and of itself.

But when taken to an extreme, it results in what Knuckey calls “the pit bull syndrome.”

“They bite and they hang on. Then you have to pry their jaws off the calf of your leg.”

The excitement in the wake of a disaster can bring a rush that can be useful - but also difficult to leave, he says. “”We like to chase fire trucks,” he said, getting nods of assent from the group. “In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, we had a lot of pastors who said this was the first time they felt their ministry was relevant. For once, they felt like, ‘this was what I sent to seminary for.’ ”

But such feelings can evolve into eventual burnout. “What can you do to take care of yourself?” asks Church World Service (CWS) Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Tom Davis.

Davis - who hits the road regularly responding to disasters - says he makes sure he keeps in touch with home. CWS, he said, is an organization that supports its employees in that endeavor. “We’re expected to call home at least once a day,” he said, adding he more often calls home 2, 3, 4 times a day. “Keep in touch with the home base. That’s a good way to keep you emotionally stable.”

CWS also has a policy, he says, that if he is on the road for three weeks, he goes home for a week. “If you don’t go home after three weeks, CWS then brings the family to you.”

Amid the chaos of responding to a disaster, keeping some routines in your life is also important, Davis says, whether that means practicing a daily devotional or simply finding time to be with yourself. “Keep some sort of order in your life."

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