Thursday, January 26, 2006

Nixzmary Brown: The problems of "burnout" and "drift"

New York City has changed since the early 1980's. New York magazine columnists describe that change as going from "gritty" to "crunchy". Having grown up and currently living in New York City, I see that change. When I went to high school, I would purchase a $0.50 cup of black coagulated liquid with copious amounts of caffeine, some milk and sugar in order to wake me up. The guy who would sell it to me was Jimmy, the Greek coffee shop owner, who smoked unfiltered cigarettes (while stirring my coffee), smelled of noxious body odors and was tattooed from head to toe from years of serving in the Greek military. On alternate Thursdays he would shave. This was New York City in 1986.

Now, I have three Starbucks cafes near my house where I can purchase a $4.00 non-fat soy latte flavored with organically grown sugar. The latte is not so much to wake me up, but to "highlight my morning experience". The barista that makes my latte is from Oklahoma. June, a hopefully optimistic, wide-eyed girl wants to be an actress, smells of fresh sandalwood, and probably never smoked a cigarette in her life. On alternate Thursdays, June gets a facial. This is New York City in 2006.

So when a 7 year old girl is pummeled to death by her parents, and several agencies failed to intervene, the city goes ape. The support staff at school should have performed this. The child case workers should have done that. A list of people is released to the media that directs the public as to who needs to be blamed. People are suspended from work; others are investigated. We need to find someone to blame to make us feel better about our city, and continue our lovely latte existence. We cannot slip back into our tattooed coagulated liquid days!!! Once the individuals in the agencies are hung out to dry and the parents are locked in a jail cell for 7000 years, then we can all breathe much more easily.

At that point, we might even consider getting a facial.

The problem is that these agencies, as is the case with many agencies and unfortunately corporations as well is that they do not adequately address the problem of "burnout" or "drift". According to New York psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger, PhD., (who coined the term), "burnout" is a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by a devotion to a cause, a way of life, or a relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.

The ironic aspect is that worker "burnout" is seen in people who were once incredibly passionate about their careers, their job. I've met many DOE and ACS workers who initially had this belief - that their deity-inspired mission - their personal crusade - is to educate children fully and utterly and to protect them from any and all harm. These people are often willing to work 90 or 100 hours a week, often with little or no promise for overtime. They don't need money - they are on a jihad to educate the masses or liberate children from the tyranny of abusive adults. Sometimes, supervisors and managers notice these intense work schedules and take it for granted that they should only be working 35 - 40 hours a week. They are impressed by their commitment to the profession, and they are then assigned tougher and tougher cases.

Exhaustion then sets in. Working 100 hours a week, wears thin on sleep schedules. Friends and family become distant. In fact a person who is in the process of "burning out" will have arguments with their spouses, friends and family - they are seen as trying to sabotage his or her career opportunities. Don't forget that the nature of their job is so intense and draining that it is a wonder that many of these individuals walk around sane.

Soon, the worker develops a devastating belief: "Nothing that I can possibly do can really help anymore". The worker then develops a belief that even if he or she worked 24 hours a day and seven days a week, nothing could further the goals of the original crusade. A more critical consequence of burnout is overlooked as well, one which pervades most or all of a person's daily life. People who burn out often have difficulties controlling their attention - directing and maintaining their attentional faculties.

Dimitri van der Linden and his colleagues at the University of Radboud in the Netherlands found that burnt out individuals or individuals who were in the process of burning out tended to make many more errors on cognitive tasks when compared to individuals who were not under a lot of stress.

van der Linden and his associates found that these individuals had difficulties inhibiting their attention and responses. What that means is that these individuals tended to have difficulties "holding back" their initial response or solution to a problem, and as a consequence didn't appear to engage in any sort of deep processing in order to solve the task at hand.

The burnt out ACS worker is probably facing the same problem. The DOE guidance counselor, teacher or school psychologist is not far behind.

The problem of “burning out” leads to “drift” and problems with” treatment integrity”. The individuals begin their jobs implementing a particular plan, but then they seem to “drift” from that particular protocol. Even slight drifts can lead to not implementing the plan as originally proposed or a lack of “treatment integrity”. This phenomenon has been documented in business as well as in education.

Fortunately there is a way to deal with many of these issues. First, Mayor Bloomberg’s general plan to hire more case workers and supervisors is to be applauded. However, that plan may go the way of the Long Island Expressway in Suffolk County. Any good city planner could have told you that adding lanes to the Long Island Expressway will not alleviate traffic – it will make it worse, since more people will be likely to use it (thinking of course, that the extra lane will alleviate traffic!).

Mayor Bloomberg’s plan also called for more training and supervision. However, I would be interested in how this training and supervision should take place. Research shows that training and supervision needs to be delivered frequently over long tracts of time, and not in a “one-day seminar model”. These one day seminars lead to eventual drift – even people who are not overstressed or in the process of burning out will still forget some aspects of a plan, and not implement the plan appropriately.

Ruth Malkenson at the Tel Aviv University, Robin Codding at the CUNY Graduate Center, and Kurtz Arabella at the University of Leicester all discussed the need for frequent feedback and supervision. Summarized as a whole, emotional supervision as well as constant feedback helps to combat drift and burnout. Malkenson uses the term “booster” sessions of supervision and feedback – so supervision should not be looked at almost like a flu shot – you need to get one on a frequent basis, otherwise, it just doesn’t work.

As I write this, John Mattingly, the head of the ACS is currently being grilled by the NYC City Council. I’m sure, that politically, they will want to hang him out to dry; After all, they will claim, someone has to pay. And I agree – someone needs to pay for DOE and ACS workers to get frequent and consistent supervision.


An Educational Voyage said...

Thanks for posting your comment on my post on this case.

I read your blog post and found it very interesting! I'm glad you discussed the burnout effect. If society does not tackle the cause, then it will forever continue to chase it's proverbial tail trying to make quick fixes on the backs of those who set out to make a difference. Great blog!


Eugene Weixel said...

Thank you Andrew for adding this comment to my blog. So, you're a school psychologist! May I make a few comments about how school staff works with ACS?

Thanks,I will:

Guidance counselors who save their reports "to ACS" (actually it's to a State worker in Albany) for Friday night or Saturday morning are doing their children a grave disservice. This seems to be a pattern. Some guidance counselor takes five or six situation that should have been reported days or weeks earlier, calls them in from home, leaves the school telephone number and then plays telephone tag with the caseworker.

We at emergency children{s services get the report which was taken by someone in Albany who has no responsibility for the investigation and half the time cannot spell the ethnic names nor remembers to ask the reporter about apartment numbers, and we go blind as we are mandated to visit the child not knowing how the reporter knows what she says she knows. Did the child tell you this? Did you see the bruise?

And I remember the old days when a child who was beaten got held oin the school until ACS and police showed up. Whatever happened to those days? Did they go the way of the fifty cent coffee? Does it take a rocket scientist to know that if you send this child home he will recant his story??????????

I don't think Mattingly is being crucified at all. He came in promising to back up his staff and he sold us down the river. Now, more than ever we have cops, teachers, assistant districts attorney deciding to take our cases over because even our commissioner agrees that we need cops to come in and show us how to do our jobs. You would not believe the results of this sell out.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering, since you are a school psychologist, do you know if Nixzmary had any learning or neurological impairment of any kind? Don't get me wrong, I'm not excusing anything that this sick man did to this child, but he must have had a motive behind it. I myself have ADHD and I can't even count the stupid things I did when I was her age, let alone what she was said to have done. If what these parents are saying about her actions are true [I'm not sure that they are], then could she have had ADHD, bipolar, or something similar? I know most of the withdrawal behavior at school was because of the abuse, but could she have had some kind of disability that made her behavior tip this guy off? If I lived with this guy when I was her age, he would have probably killed me faster. If you know anything, say something.

Andrew Livanis said...

I'm not sure if Nixzmary had any types of learning or neurological issues.

However, the data and research do show that parents of children with disabilities are more prone to coercive forms of discipline. As you've pointed out, oftentimes these parents are burnt out, exhausted and overly-stressed out to the degree that they feel that nothing they can do may help.