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