When I was at University studying for a degree and social work qualification, the term 'burnout' was often bandied about. It was used to describe a state whereby the pressures of the job got so great that the practitioner became incapacitated and in extreme cases would be in danger of suffering a nervous breakdown. It was a clearly recognised condition and occupational hazard for both social workers and probation officers. It was accepted that the work in both fields would inevitably involve becoming emotionally embroiled in clients difficulties, at the same time as it being necessary to sometimes exercise extreme degrees of control that ultimately lead to the removal of children or loss of liberty.
Strangely I've never heard the term used since, it seemingly having been replaced by the concept of 'work-related stress' instead. The trouble is we all know that a degree of stress is necessary for a full and active life, so the term has never seemed to me to be a suitable replacement for a way of describing the completely debilitating state you get into when you cannot face work any more.
It happened to me several times after 18 years trouble-free service. The first time I didn't really notice it creeping up on me, but I did notice some strange things, like driving past the motorway exit I'd used virtually every working day. Like getting home and not remembering seeing any of the traffic lights. Waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. The pile of PSR's to complete never seeming to go down and the demands on my time appearing to be never ending. Then something happened. In my case it was seeing a long-standing client with intractable problems and I'd simply run out of ideas. I had no answers and unusually I found I couldn't even find the energy to actively engage him. I found myself sending him away leaving me feeling utterly desolate. All I can remember is tidying my normally very chaotic desk and leaving the office, knowing that I would not be returning the next day.
The GP was very sympathetic and understood my reasons for declining anti-depressants. I opted for counselling instead. Although I kept all eight appointments diligently, the poor counsellor must have known she had an unenviable task in trying to counsel a fellow professional. I made it as easy as possible for her and refrained from pointing out some major errors, but in the end I found it was really only the passage of time and the 'letting go' that gets you through it. I don't think I got dressed on most days and hardly ever left the house for several months.
Until it happened to me, I hadn't really appreciated how the changes in the Probation Service were having such an insidious effect. I'd put all my energy into adjusting, coping and dealing with clients in the way I'd always done and been taught. Clearly it had simply never occurred to management either that changing the whole ethos of the Service just might possibly be damaging to some of its staff. That's been one of the saddest bits of the so-called cultural revolution within the Service really.