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Caregiver burnout is real. Here’s how professional caretakers deal with it

Latasha Doyle
Sept. 20, 2018

Most of my days as a full-time nanny started out the same way: I would get up, shower, get coffee and head out the door. I’d get to work, enter the family’s home through the garage and I’d be greeted by kids, most likely still in their pajamas on the couch. I’d get them dressed and out the door for school, or I’d have a day’s worth of activities and fun planned for them. But one day was not like the others.

On this day, I got up, showered, poured my coffee and headed out the door. But when I pulled up to work, I parked my car and sat there, thinking, “I can’t go in there. I just can’t do it.”

The week prior to this had been rough. The eldest child was not engaged with her reading homework and had screamed “I hate you!” at the top of her lungs the evening before. The youngest was regressing on potty training, the parents needed me to take the dogs to the vet and I had worked a 48-hour week by Thursday.

I was tired. I was sad. I was anxious about stepping inside and seeing what the day would bring. I was terrified that the kids would sense my funk and act out. I was even more worried that I was going to have to quit my job because I just couldn’t keep going like this. But most of all, I felt like I was screwing up at every turn and didn’t have the tools it took to care for these kids on a full-time basis.

In short, I was burnt out.

What is ‘burnout’?

Today, burnout is a common topic for everyone, from moms, nannies and other caregivers to CEOs of massive companies. The definition of burnout is “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress” — something to which many caregivers can relate. Some specific causes of caregiver burnout may include:

  • A sense of personal responsibility

  • Unclear work roles (hours, duties, boundaries, etc.)

  • Feeling out of control

  • Long hours

  • Insufficient pay

  • Personal life stressors

For caregivers, the experience of burnout can feel personal and all-consuming because they often feel very emotionally involved with their charges and may even give up extra time and energy to ensure proper care. Surveys show that over 56 percent of paid caregivers work 40 hours or more per week, which can make it hard to properly care for oneself in addition to others. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of burnout early on.

Identifying caregiver burnout

Anyone can feel burnout, but caregivers and child care professionals may experience it more intensely. According to Sheila K. Collins, author of “Stillpoint: A Self Care Playbook for Caregivers to Find Ease and Time to Breathe, and Reclaim Joy,” caregiver burnout happens “when people who love their work move from one client to the next, one human crisis to the next, without time for themselves and their own renewal. Many [people] in various professions have these issues, but in professional caregivers, they seem more pronounced.”

For some caregivers, the signs of burnout may include sleepless nights and overwhelming anxiety. For others, it may feel like detachment and a lack of motivation. Burnout can also lead you to feel short-tempered or bitter about everything you have to do in a day.

There are many signs of caregiver burnout, but some of the most common ones include:

  • Loss of interest in your role

  • Insomnia or changing sleep habits

  • Getting sick frequently

  • Mood swings and irritability

  • Stress eating or loss of appetite

  • Symptoms of anxiety or depression

Whatever burnout looks like for you, it’s important to know which symptoms show up for you, so you know how to address them.

Tips for burnout relief from caregivers who’ve been there

If you’re a caregiver feeling burned out on the job, all is not lost. Rest assured, the feeling is normal and you can turn it around. We talked to several professional caregivers to get their tried and true tips for dealing with burnout.

1. Know your limits and set boundaries

Deeply caring for our charges, whether we care for an elderly individual or a newborn, is a huge trigger for burnout. Allie Borgeson, a nanny and classroom companion for children with special rights, shares her worst experience with burnout, which began with the unexpected illness of her charge’s grandparent.

“I was asked to stay with the child for a couple of nights while the parents went to be with the grandfather,” Borgeson says. “Of course, I agreed and it felt manageable in the moment, but by the end of it all, I was totally burnt out.”

The close and complex relationship between caregivers and the families you work for can leave feelings of guilt, which might be a signal that you need to set boundaries and take time for yourself.

Borgeson recommends setting boundaries and being consistent with them to prevent burnout.

“Families won’t know if they’re asking too much of us if we don’t have boundaries set, so decide if you want to work only 40 hours a week, or make sure it’s clear that you are not available on weekends or holidays,” she says.

2. Take time for self care

When you’re feeling stressed, Jennifer Ochoa, a long-time daycare provider, recommends “shedding the feelings from a rough day.” This means taking the time to reset by walking on a treadmill, taking a bath — whatever you need to recharge your batteries. Making this a scheduled event after work can help you ensure that you fit the time in.

“If you work full-time with a family, don't be afraid to spend some of that time for yourself,” says Ashley Miltenberger, a nanny from Denver, Colorado. “Some days I took the kids on an extra long bike ride while I ran so that I got exercise, and sometimes I watched TV with them and napped instead of doing dishes or laundry.”

3. Change your perspective

Ochoa says that long hours and little assistance in her classroom can leave her feeling fried, overwhelmed and unable to engage with kids at the level to which she’s accustomed.

“On one occasion, my assistant didn’t show up for our field trip, meaning we couldn’t go because we would be out of ratio,” Ochoa says. “Instead, we stayed indoors and the kids were not having it. I pulled every trick out of my bag to keep them entertained. The next day, it was me who wasn’t having it. I noticed I was not as engaging with our kiddos, and I was short-tempered and rushing through the day. I felt anxious and the kids definitely picked up on my vibes.”

Ochoa’s tips for overcoming this kind of burnout?

“Attitude is everything,” she says. “Turning your frown upside down can feel borderline obnoxious at times, but it must be done!”

To do this, Ochoa recommends doing something fun and upbeat, something that can always make you smile. This could mean playing a game with the kids, finding a cute craft to make, or having a dance party — just for the sake of fun.

4. Focus on the positive

Miltenberger believes that a lack of connection with your charges (or their families) can certainly contribute to caregiver burnout. A 2017 study by the Chicago School of Professional Psychology backs this up, stating that the family-nanny relationship is a “major contributor to the quality of care and caregiver attunement.”

“The worst experiences I had with burnout were with children whom I had a difficult time bonding with or when the family had little to no gratitude for the work I put in,” Miltenberger says. “At times, when parents came home, they would write a check and show no interest in how the day went with their child. That’s when I felt disheartened and lacked motivation.”

To overcome burnout associated with feeling underappreciated, Miltenberger focused on the kids and tried to soak up the small, yet fun moments she had with them.

“Doing house chores didn't bother me as much when I thought about how it would help the kids and would provide a cleaner environment for them,” she says. “Helping with laundry became a game for both the kids and me, instead of a nuisance. Parents coming home to gripe about their day instead of asking how their child was didn't matter when I knew the children had a memorable day.”

5. Ask for help

When it comes to feeling burnt out, it can be really hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Instead of waiting for the burnout to relieve itself, Ochoa says, “Ask for help! I had people available in other classrooms and didn’t reach out. I thought I had things covered, I thought I could make it through the day solo but I could not, and that’s what burned me out.”

Borgeson adds that being honest with your charge’s family can help.

“When you’re not feeling well, feel overly tired or are dealing with stress, you have the right to ask for a sick day,” Borgeson says.

You can also ask them for help and see if there are ways the family can lighten the load to make it easier for you to manage your duties in the future.

Caregiver burnout happens

The day I realized I was burnt out, I managed to get myself out of the car and into the house. I was met by two smiling faces and one adult who was relieved to have my help. That’s not to say that the day went smoothly — it didn’t. There were tantrums (both from me and the kids, I’ll admit), messes to clean up and I went home and cried. But when I woke up the next day, I knew I needed to do something to prevent that level of burnout from affecting me and the kids I loved so much.

I started scheduling in time between dropoff and groceries or story time and playdates; time where the kids and I just hung out. I also asked my husband to cook dinner more often and built in more time to decompress when I got home. Focusing on slowing down really helped me, and it made it easier for me to see which events triggered more stress (and therefore burnout). I won’t lie and say the burnout never came back, but it was always much more manageable and I could spot it sooner.

Caregiver burnout does happen, even to the caregivers with the best attitudes and strongest boundaries. If you are experiencing extreme fatigue, ongoing illnesses or the inability to bounce back from an episode of burnout, you should consult your doctor or health care professional. Burnout shouldn’t be a normal part of your life, so make sure you take time to identify it, care for yourself, and work to prevent it in the future.

Read next: Things families do that drive nannies crazy

User in Las Vegas, NV
Jan. 21, 2019

From the start, I chose to set my time frame (4 PM~8 PM) for math tutoring. Normally, it will be from 6 PM to 8 PM due to library closing time. But if student's home or any other meeting place is really close to my home, I do accept and start earlier than 6PM. If it is once a week session (for those who lives far away from me) (20 miles or more), I chose (most of time) Friday or Saturday afternoons. Because I set these boundaries, it worked out well for me and most of my past employers are happy / satisfied with my service. Bottom line: you should evaluate and figure out your limits before you apply to next job as caregiver.

I've worked at two gymnastics facilities teaching children, and the first place was amazing. I connected with the owners, the children were respectful and tried really hard. That, plus me being able to implement different activities and control how much time we spent on one skill really motivated me. The second facility, which I work at now, I'm now realizing is the complete opposite of my last job and it's causing me to burnout! I thought it was just the stress of school but now that I think about it, it's just my job! Heck, half the time I'm on cleaning duty instead of working with the kids. And when I do work with them, I'm merely an assistant with no say in the day's activities, no matter how repetitive. And I barely thought twice about this before reading this article!

Why do kids need to be entertained. When I was home from school, I had a bike, skates and friends and got together after chores and homework. Many kids know what they have to do and should do it. Trying to get on the good side of some kids, are not the way to go. Pets they need to walk. Homework to do. A Snack and then parents are home.

I learned from getting burned out with families, that it's a good idea to have a meeting once a month with the parents to discuss things. That way, things don't build up & cause me to want to quit. Problems can get solved instead of festering.

I have had the experience of having a couple of the boys that I watch disrespect me , I really do not like going to their house because they look at me like I have two heads when asked to do anything .Plus it seems like the parents punish the two of them conveniently when I happen to be there from their electronics so they are all over the place and going crazy with me there. Its not like I do not work other jobs during that day so its not like I am rested when I go there at 5:30- 6 after picking their sister up at day care . Have not watched them for the summer which I did not miss at all ,but the mom called me back the other day and I accepted .But I also asked if the boys had gotten any better over the summer and the mom answered "yea I think they have but they are who they are " !!I 'm like WHAT ?? to myself of course . I still say children are who they are because of their up bringing and some parents think this is a joke they repremand them but it does not stick when them when I 'm there . I mention things to mom but she just laughs like I am suppose to ignore it .An d they are not very friendly to me when I am there .I have tried my best but its just not working So I have felt for quit some time this is always going to be a struggle for me with this family but I am willing to give it a shot again but if it continues I will need to move on as I know this is probably not going to be a pleasant job again this season

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