Burnout – Are You at Risk?

Burnout – Are You at Risk?

Working with immigrant and refugee children and families can be incredibly rewarding, but we shouldn’t ignore the toll it can take on the physical and emotional lives of Care for Newcomer Children (CNC) staff.

This toll can lead to burnout – a common side effect for those working in the helping professions.

The good news is that it can be prevented if you know what to watch for.

When Compassion Hurts: Burnout, Vicarious Trauma and Secondary Trauma in Prenatal and Early Childhood Service Providers, published by The Best Start Resource Centre, is a 45 page in-depth exploration of the issue.

We strongly recommend you read the complete guide if you have some concerns about a member of your team or yourself, but here are some of the highlights:

The Physical and Emotional Impacts of Stress and Trauma are Real

Our vulnerability to burnout increases when we focus on the distress of others and lose focus on our own needs. The best CNC staff are empathetic, but that empathy can take a physical and emotional toll. When the empathy leads to stress or reaches the point of burnout, there are real physical and emotional side effects. It is often not something that they can just “snap out of”.

No two people in the same stressful situation will necessarily react the same way, so symptoms of staff burnout can vary. One person might have difficulty sleeping, while another may have severe headaches. Others may feel tired all the time and some may turn to alcohol or drugs for relief.

It is important that we are all aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout so we can recognize, prevent and treat the problem.

Be alert to physical changes in staff members.

PHYSICAL signs of stress might include:

  • Anxiety and/or depression
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disorders
  • Allergies, hives or
  • Arthritis, backaches or jaw pain
  • Eating problems, digestive problems, or ulcers
  • Immune system problems, infections, colds/flu
  • High blood pressure, heart problems or stroke
  • Nervous tics
  • Addiction
  • Poor self esteem
  • Hives
  • Cancer

Be alert to changes in behavior and expression of emotions in staff members.

Often there are behavior or personality changes. Someone might act in ways that are not consistent with how they used to be. For example, a person who was always happy and positive may become more and more negative. It’s important to know the signs so you can quickly respond.

Signs of stress sometimes include:

  • Sudden difficulty managing emotions
  • Loss of self-esteem or comments about lack of confidence in their role as a caregiver
  • Tensions within relationships, social withdrawal or absence from work
  • Irritable, impulsive, moody behaviour
  • Difficulty problem solving
  • Expressing feelings of powerlessness, loss of the meaning or value of life
  • Inability to focus or losing focus easily, memory lapses
  • Staying at work long hours, taking work home
  • Trying to control the lives of others
  • Becoming accident prone
  • Developing addictive behaviours
  • Becoming fearful when the situation is not appropriate
  • Feeling numb
  • Sensitivity to violence
  • Decrease in pleasurable activities
  • Re-directing conversations that create distress
  • Feeling disconnected from work/home or relationships
  • Cynicism or guilt
  • Obsessive compulsive behavior

Everyone is at Risk

There is no simple marker to identify who is at risk for burnout.

Individual risk factors depend on:

  • Personality, work and coping styles
  • Personal history with stress
  • Current life circumstance and stresses at home
  • Strength of social supports
  • Spiritual connection and resources

Work and community risk factors include:

  • Work – role at work and degree of exposure to trauma.
  • Culture –Values, cultural differences and language may add to the complexity.
  • Community Resources – when a person lacks some of their basic needs, secure housing, income or food.
  • Community Factors – when they live in communities that have high needs or risk of natural disasters.

Focus on Prevention

Just as there are risk factors, there are also things you can do to protect your team.  By focusing on prevention, you can help avoid more serious problems in the future.

Talk to your team and encourage them to:

  • Practice self-reflection and awareness – it helps to identify stresses and pressures early.
  • Find a balance between home and work.
  • Practice self-care (exercise, hobbies)
  • Set boundaries – and say NO when they need to.
  • Express their feelings – it is a pillar of mental health.

You can also provide:

  • Training on identifying stress and the signs of burnout, and on taking positive action. Ensure all supervisors know signs to watch for.
  • Have some supports readily accessible if needed by staff including consultation, supervision, team meetings, employee assistance programs and professional development.
  • Establish a strong, positive work environment and respect the limitations of your team. Build support to reduce staff anxiety and distress, and make it easier for them to discuss any concerns.


Burnout is real and happens more than we might like to admit, but it can be prevented.

What you can do:

  1. Read and use the guide to build your work environment.
  2. Share this information with your staff.
  3. Talk about the content at staff meetings.
  4. Develop a work environment where staff feel free to talk about the physical and emotional reactions they are experiencing in their work with immigrant and refugee children and their families each day.
  5. Watch for signs of stress and provide support for your team.