‘Just trying to keep people alive’: A study examines burnout among people who work with the homeless

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Researchers called on employers to try to prevent burnout among those in a privileged position, as the case study highlighted how important resilience was

‘Just trying to keep people alive’: A study examines burnout among people who work with the homeless

Burnout in people who help the homeless is common in the UK and Ireland and is linked to drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and extreme cases of self-harm.

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Workers are working an average of 48 hours a week for a total of 146 hours a month on such causes of stress, according to the latest research, conducted by the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Spatial Lifecourse Studies and the NHS.

The study, being published in the journal Resilience, surveyed 625 people, half of whom worked in fields of social welfare, emergency health, environment and social care in an attempt to examine the longer-term impact on mental and physical health.

While most reported being satisfied with their jobs, and just one-third stressed or distressed by the work, seven in 10 said they had suffered some form of burnout.

Workers found the stress caused from helping the homeless so taxing that it impacted their self-confidence and ability to socialise, with nearly one in 10 suffering loss of freedom from possessions and one in 10 experiencing spending too much time outside of home.

Peter Donnellan, research coordinator at the Centre for Spatial Lifecourse Studies, said: “Just trying to keep people alive is really intense. A lot of the time, the victims are in high stress situations and therefore we know that some form of self-harm occurs.

“Other stressors can include that if you’re doing the volunteering and you’re not in employment for a while, not being able to earn money to cover things like rent and food is stressful.”

While they found levels of burnout consistent with previous research, social worker Frison Wilkins said that although the costs were known, there was a lack of resources to support sufferers.

“When you see the changes – mentally, it’s only a matter of time before the body dissolves – it’s not often that you speak with the professionals who will actually work with them,” she said.

“If they’re ill, you’re not sure who the professionals are, what can they offer them. They’re a distinct part of the whole community.”

The report added that the society in which burnout exists needed to address “everyday dilemmas that could have profound impacts on the health and wellbeing of the nation”.

Dr Lisa Poliak, a psychologist, has been examining burnout in social workers who work with the homeless for 10 years.

She said the report had raised questions for everyone working in the social services sector.

“There is no doubt that professionals like us – in our jobs and especially those of us who work with vulnerable and some destitute people – have much higher levels of stress than other professions,” she said.

“This is not down to a lack of resources or unhappiness. But there does need to be a shift to provide the right kind of support and work environment.”

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