Written by Daniel Brashear, BCBA, LBA
Over the past three years, external stressors surrounding the impact of COVID-19 left many people in the workforce feeling exhausted, unmotivated, and overwhelmed with keeping up with the daily flow of life. Adults with school-age children were put under increased stress maintaining occupational responsibilities while trying to navigate the educational transition to remote learning. Daily living was even further exacerbated for families with children in need of specialized services (Jimenez-Gomez, 2021).
Causes of High BCBA Burnout
Workers in social services and client care industries were pushed to their limits often putting the care of others before their own. In a sample size of over 800 ABA practitioners, including behavior technicians and Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), 72% reported medium to high levels of burnout. (Slowiak, 2022). Exhaustion and disengagement can lead to absenteeism, turnover, and physical health deterioration (Plantiveau, 2018) which can have negative ripple effects on an already vulnerable population who receive behavioral services. Furthermore, burnout and high turnover rates are costly experiences for providers, organizations, and clients as the constant need for training can lead to resource depletion of time and energy, as well as disruptions in service delivery for all involved (Slowiak, 2022).
Burnout has been described as a work-related state of exhaustion, exemplified as extreme tiredness, emotional and cognitive impairment, and mental distancing (Otto, 2021). Burnout is a prevailing issue amongst ABA practitioners, with a number of factors contributing to the result. It is important to be aware of the environmental variables that could be acting on the practitioner when observing and assessing burnout, as well as early indicators to be conscientious of to mitigate symptoms.
Burnout is most often caused by prolonged exposure to work-related stresses. This can include an imbalance between demand and resources, as well as conflict in the workplace. Conflict in the workplace can include supervisors, coworkers, and clients. There can even be conflicts between demands for the role and personal preferences (Plantiveau, 2018). Furthermore, unrealistic expectations, challenging student behavior, and lack of training or administrative support can be contributing factors to job dissatisfaction and turnover, as well (Plantiveau, 2018).
The Buildup of Burnout
Burnout often takes place over a prolonged period of time, and it can often be difficult to notice when it is occurring. There tend to be a common set of symptoms associated with burnout that can act as early indicators to mitigate onset if identified early enough. If broken down into three general categories, burnout can present as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and lack of personal accomplishment (Jimenez-Gomez, 2021). This can manifest in a deterioration of physical health, a lack of motivation to go to work, feeling ill-equipped to complete the work assigned, or feeling like you can no longer put the needs of the client before your own.
Ways to Reduce Burnout
Douvani et al. (2019), found that half of all BCBA professionals had only worked with one to two clients before certification. Furthermore, 50% of all certified behavior analysts were certified in the last 5 years (BACB, 2022). This strengthens the case for the repeated findings that high quality training and ongoing supervision are two of the biggest factors in mitigating burnout amongst employees (Douvani et al., 2019). While organizations can attempt to reduce burnout through fostering more positive work environments and high quality training, unfortunately, meta-analytical reviews have displayed that employer-initiated interventions have lasting, yet little effect on burnout prevention, leaving the burden of responsibility ultimately on the employee (Otto et al., 2021). Luckily, there has been an increase in research towards self-initiated preventative burnout interventions, and results show early signs of success (Otto et al., 2021).
One of the difficulties with addressing burnout is that by the time symptoms are identified, intervening with the behaviors needed to mitigate the symptoms can often be stressful just to think about. Thus, taking preventative measures prior to the onset is proven to be the most effective approach (Slowiak, 2022). Much of the research surrounding preventative measures when addressing burnout circles around the importance of self-care, mindfulness, and time management (Eberhart, 2019). This can take the form of engaging in activities that you care about or find enjoyable, setting limits with your clients and supervisors as to how much work you can manage, knowing your own triggers as it relates to burnout, and finding ways to contact reinforcement both inside and outside your work environment.
Rethinking Work-Life Balance to Mitigate Burnout
One common narrative as it relates to self-care is the notion of maintaining a work-life balance. Far too often this concept gets split into a dichotomy indicating that work and life should be two separate experiences with clear boundaries. However, work is inherently a part of life, and work can and should be fun. This takes place through finding meaningful work to engage in, so that feelings of satisfaction are experienced when time has been considered to be well spent. Slowiak (2022) rejects the word “work-life balance” and instead chooses to call it “work-life flow” as the two aspects of our life more often than not tend to blend together. She continues by outlining parameters of work self-care and personal self-care, and how they intertwine.
Personal and Professional Self-Care
Self-care can be described as a set of behaviors that an individual engages in on a daily or regular basis (Slowiak, 2022). The domains of self-care can be split into the following categories:
- Physical: Sleep habits, engaging in physical activity, or illness prevention
- Psychological/emotional: Practicing mindfulness, labeling triggers, or recognizing and using personal strengths
- Social: A support system through close relationships or community
- Leisure: Such as playing sports, knitting, spending time with a pet, or however an individual chooses to “recover”
- Spiritual: Finding purpose, reflection, spending time in nature, or religion
It is important to establish strong self-care routines first, as these act as a prerequisite to developing professional self-care behaviors.
Slowiak (2022) then went on to outline a number of different domains to encompass how professional self-care presents in the work environment:
- Professional support: Maintaining supportive relationships with our colleagues & avoiding isolation. It is important to create sustainable relationships over time, and this can be done through sharing both rewarding and stressful work experiences.
- Professional development: Finding continuing education opportunities that match your interests on a professional level and personal level. Additionally, picking channels of information dissemination that cater to your learning or finding it through the organization. This can be trying to find something at work that can tied to your personal values.
- Life balance: This is the dichotomy of work-life balance. The pandemic blended the two and, ultimately in our life, they are a part of one another. This could be reading emails on the treadmill or leaving all work at the office. This is based on personal preference.
- Cognitive awareness: This stresses the importance of psychological self care, andbeing able to tact our triggers and alter our responses. This is through self-monitoring and self-reflection, which tend to result in increased positive feelings and feelings of personal accomplishment
- Daily balance: This is the small scale, day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute awareness of self needs. It includes taking micro-breaks or practicing grounding techniques to break up the work day.
Defining Job Crafting and Its Success Against Burnout
Recent research has also indicated job crafting as a successful strategy to mitigate burnout. Job crafting is a job redesign strategy and a method of engaging in professional self-care. It involves initiation by the employee in making tweaks and changes to their professional life as a response to job demands (Slowiak, 2022). This can be through changing the quantity of work agreed upon, managing deadlines, setting meetings to occur at more preferred times of day, varying types of clients across cases, or reducing less preferred non-client related activities. Ultimately the goal is to increase the fulfilling and challenging aspects of the job while decreasing the hindering aspects of the job as they pertain to the individual’s personal preferences.
Addressing Burnout and Social Health
Burnout has nothing to do with yourself, it is merely an indication that there is something wrong with the current structure in your life. Given the nature of the field of behavior analysis and the client population that it serves, it is understandable why burnout would be so high. Luckily, there are a number of preventative strategies that can be taken to mitigate the onset of symptoms. Utilizing these strategies can help BCBAs maintain high levels of energy and effectiveness when providing services to their clients, and hopefully lead to a decreasing trend in turnover over time. Addressing the social health concerns surrounding burnout has been an ongoing issue for a number of years. With burnout affecting everybody from providers to parents to caregivers, (Shaikh, 2022) and even children on the spectrum (Mantzalas, 2022), it is of the utmost importance that the body of research on effective interventions continues to grow. Thankfully, it is reassuring to know the number of BCBAs continues to grow, and there is no better profession to assess the variables surrounding burnout and develop a path towards positive change than that of a behavior analyst.