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5 Ways to Avoid Burnout in Direct Service

Check out #JVStories for the next few months for posts by JVC staff member Bridget Barry, that empower us to think more critically about mental health, as well as ways we can care for ourselves, stand with those serving others, and care for those on the margins.

By Bridget Barry

Engaging in direct service leads to deep relationships, and sometimes secondary emotional trauma. Many who serve others, build relationships and practice compassion day-to-day struggle with burnout. Burnout is exemplified by a shift in patience and expectations.

For example, if a month ago a non-compliant client would have only mildly stirred up emotions, but now an individual feels like they just cannot deal, and there are negative emotions that are stirred up–this may be an indicator of burnout. An important preventative measure to avoid burnout is self care. Practicing self care is simply engaging in activities that allow you to live healthily.

How can you avoid burnout?

1. Figure out what works for you 

JVs journaling during DisOrientation in July of 2014

Restoration of energy is not a one-size-fits all practice. Accordingly, internal processors (folks who need time to sit with the thoughts swimming around their head) may need time everyday with their journal. Similarly, external processors (folks who prefer to speak and process their thoughts outloud) may need to see a therapist.


You might need exercise to bring up your heart rate, or meditation to bring down your heart rate. Therefore, figure out what fills you up, and use those practices. If yoga stresses you out, don’t try to make it your thing. Find self care that serves you, and your needs.

2. Pay attention to your relationships

One sign of burnout is a decreased ability to engage fully in your meaningful relationships. People naturally grow apart, or experience conflict. But, if you notice similar problems across the board in your relationships, the common denominator is probably you. If you don’t have the capacity to give and accept support because you’re emotionally drained, you may have a hard time finding yourself fulfilled.

Street art photographed in Detriot from the 2015 photo contest. Taking a step outside and exploring things you might normally pass by such as street art is a FREE way to adventure.

3. Take Vacations, Go on Adventures

It’s important to make sure stressful situations don’t stop you from experiencing new things. It can also be helpful have a change of setting and change of place to get out of your head. You don’t necessarily need a lot of money or time. Visit a museum you’ve never seen for the afternoon, take a train to visit a friend in a different city or camp overnight in an accessible state park.

4. Don’t sweat the small stuff

Someone experiencing burnout can  react differently than they might otherwise to events in their life. Try to be conscious of how you are responding to situations–i.e. Asking yourself, why am I so upset about this instead of reacting immediately. This self reflection and self awareness can allow you to monitor if your experience is a reflection of yourself, more so than the situation.


5. Ask for support if you need it.

JVs at the 2015 Orientation taking a selfie. Community is a great place to reach out to for support with your self-care plan.

Find someone you trust or call or text a help line. Then you can work with someone to make things more manageable in the future.

Self Care is a constant process and is always evolving for each individual. Don’t be scared to ask for what you need and focus on making sure you take care of yourself. To do so means that you invest in your ability to contribute to your fullest.


Bridget is part of the JVC staff and served at Friends of the Poor in Scranton, PA (2016-2017). She graduated from the College of Saint Benedict with a degree in Political Science and English. 



Read more about self-care practices and the illustration work of Mari Andrew