Learn to recognize common sources of stress for caregivers of the elderly, familiarize yourself with the signs of burnout, and read our strategies and tips for reducing stress.
Nearly all of us experience work-related stress, whether it’s the tension of dealing with an unpleasant colleague or simply the feeling that there are too many tasks on our to-do list. In fact, job pressure is the leading cause of stress in the U.S., according to the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress.
Professionals who work with the elderly — geriatric care managers, social workers and case managers, to name a few — may be subject to sources of stress unique to their field, like unpaid overtime, reams of paperwork and challenging families. These difficulties not only cause stress, but can also lead to burnout. Learn to recognize common sources of stress for caregivers of the elderly, as well as signs of burnout, and apply some of our tips for reducing stress before burnout sets in.
For social workers and geriatric care managers, stress is often a part of the job. These professionals are responsible for assisting the elderly with health changes and transitions common to aging, such as arranging for home care needs or helping locate an assisted living community. They evaluate the elderly client’s physical, mental, emotional and behavioral health needs and help to address those needs, thereby increasing quality of life. They also help educate clients and families on issues related to health care, finance, senior living and more. It’s a challenging field — one with a lot of component parts and many different on-the-job demands.
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Not surprisingly, in a 2007 survey by the National Association of Social Workers, the most commonly reported source of stress was lack of time to do the tasks associated with one’s job: this was true for 31% of social workers. Heavy workloads and insufficient compensation were also major sources of stress. Bev Guerin, BSW, agrees that these are definite issues for geriatric care professionals as well.
“The rules and regulations that govern work with the elderly are extensive,” says Guerin, who is completing a Master’s in Applied Psychology, focusing on stress related disorders and coping skills. “Basically this equates to an extraordinary amount of paperwork. Social workers typically enjoy working with clients and their families, but almost everything they do involves a form.”
Beyond that, social workers often work alone, rarely have down time, frequently deal with challenging clients, and may even work unpaid overtime. But it doesn’t end there. Besides the difficulty of the work itself, there are issues associated with dealing with other care professionals, such as medical providers, as well as resistant family members. “There is nothing more stressful to a social worker than handling the family’s unrealistic expectations,” says Guerin. “Sometimes family members are so full of hope that they refuse to believe in the reality that their loved one is getting older.”
Last but not least, care professionals are subject to the same personal life stresses as anybody else: finances, child care and so on.
A small amount of stress may not be harmful, and it may even motivate us to work more efficiently. But excessive stress can lead to negative emotional and physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, digestive problems, muscle tension, irritability, anger, illness and mood changes. In addition to the obvious harm to overall health and well-being, stress can negatively affect job performance, too, and in geriatric care professions, that could have a direct impact on clients and their families.
“Working with the elderly requires patience and time,” says Guerin. “A worker who is overly stressed will lack the ability to be totally and completely present with their client, and can miss important information.”
One of the more alarming risks of long-term stress is burnout. Psychology Today defines burnout as “chronic stress and frustration that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion; feelings of cynicism and detachment; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.” These feelings lead to an inability to function in one’s personal and professional life. Guerin outlined 10 potential signs of burnoutto watch out for:
The good news is that if you stay alert to early signs of stress and address them with positive coping strategies, you can help prevent burnout before it happens. Some of these are short-term tips and others are long-term approaches, but all of our expert tips are geared toward becoming more aware of the stress response, how to address it, and how to prevent stress from turning into burnout.
1. Just breathe. “When feeling overwhelmed or extremely stressed, sit at your desk and close your eyes and take a deep breath, fill your lungs all the way and exhale until your lungs are empty,” says Guerin. “Repeat this breath exercise five times.”
2. Drink a glass of water. “The brain is the center of focus and memory, as well as the computer for the rest of your bodily functions, and it is comprised of 73% water,” Guerin notes. “If you are having difficulty focusing, losing memory or experiencing brain fog or have a headache, try drinking water.”
3. Take a five minute walk, preferably outside. “During the walk, be an observer,” says Guerin. “Observe the weather, the traffic, the sun, the clouds. This is simply a distraction technique. It distracts the brain from tasks at hand and the stress of your work environment.” Getting outside can also give you a quick boost of Vitamin D. If you’re feeling adventurous, put your bare feet in grass or hug a tree. It may sound silly, but it’s another way to give your mind a break and reduce your stress level.
4. Smile. “Just smiling not only eases interactions with others but it also improves your personal mood.”
5. Be aware. Recognize how you respond to stress, Guerin says: “Know yourself — emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. Start paying attention to the messages your body is sending you.” If you notice typical warning signs like your fists clenching or your head hurting, take steps to reduce your stress.
6. Be selfish. This is a particularly important one for individuals in helping professions, Guerin says. “Caregivers tend to give and give without thinking of themselves. As a result, many caregivers forget to take care of themselves. The reality is that if you don’t take care of yourself you cannot be fully present when caring for others.”
7. Practice self-care. Eat well, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep and exercise, keep up with medical and dental appointments, and avoid negative coping skills like drinking or smoking more — it will help promote a healthy and stress-resistant lifestyle.
8. Organize. “The key to reducing stress among social workers is the use of a good calendar,” Guerin says. “Schedule EVERYTHING. Begin with your own self-care.” Then schedule your family time, your work commitments, even your lunch and your breaks, so you make sure to take them.
9. Practice meditation. Studies have repeatedly shown that meditation reduces stress. It worked for Guerin. “It was the most amazing and relaxing experience,” she says. “It worked wonders on my stress levels.” If you honor a higher power, she suggests, “Invite that presence with you to work every day and ask for divine guidance when facing difficult times.” A strong spiritual life can make you more resilient to stress.
10. Accept your limits. “You prioritize for everyone else; it’s important to make you a priority,” Guerin says. “Remember it is not your job to fix everything, your job is to provide services that improve your clients quality of life. It’s okay to set boundaries and to say ‘No.'”
What techniques do you or a loved one use to prevent caregiver burnout? Share your tips in the comments below.