Wednesday, 5 January 2011


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Strangely I've never heard the term used since, it seemingly having been replaced by the concept of 'work-related stress' instead.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.  


  1. Encapsulates 'burnout' perfectly. As a newly qualified PO and an ex-PSO of some years experience I feel that I may be 'warming up' for my first encounter..........................

  2. I happened to stumble onto this blog after doing a google search. Have been reading the various posts for about half an hour now and I absolutely love it. I'm an NQO in South London, having qualified through the last TPO cohort. This article sums up exactly how I've been feeling this week. Keep up this blog, its bloody brilliant.

  3. NR - It's very worrying that a Newly Qualified Officer is feeling like this already, but I'm glad you are finding the blog useful. Your comment has spurred me on to write some thoughts about coping. Look after yourself and spread the word. Cheers,


  4. This rings far too many bells! I feel well on the way to my first episode of burnout! All I do is work, eat (at my desk! of course!) and sleep! Oh and cry!! But I save crying for my own time coz I dont have time to do it at work! The only way I've seen out of this is people going off sick... and I'm now carrying some of their cases as a result! I'm early on in my career, I dont want a record of stress related time off, but I feel like I'm cracking up! And of course nobody cares as long as cases are allocated out and oasys targets being met! Never mind the quality of the assessments, or the terrible service I feel I am providing to a caseload who really need support and intervention... what a joke!

  5. Thats Just Me - Your post reminds me that I didn't offer much in the way of how to cope - I ducked it and you've pricked my conscience so I feel I really ought to offer some suggestions.

    I apologise in advance if it might sound like teaching you how to suck eggs, but.....

    Be firm with your SPO in resisting more work
    Join NAPO
    Talk with a couple of good colleagues
    Seek their help/advice
    Try and spend less time on OASys crap
    Enjoy your contact with less needy clients
    Write your thoughts down
    Finally you must allow some time for yourself - some rewards at work and home

    I'm really sorry that new colleagues like you are in this situation - I know there are lots of you and I intend visiting the topic again when I've had a long think.

    Thanks for commenting, keep reading, spread the word and I really hope things improve for you very soon.