Preventing Burn Out for Your Front-line Staff

Cindy Stutheit, Program Director, Champa House, Denver Rescue Mission
1994 IUGM Annual Convention Seminar, Denver CO


The work of rescue can be difficult and personally draining. Many missions find themselves running at high stress levels with situations of limited funding, staffing, facilities and more. As a result many missions suffer a fast turnover rate of their front- line employees and never seem to fully stabilize. As administrators and program directors, this can lead to an endless cycle of interviewing, hiring and training. This work shop will address these specific problems and is designed to help supervisors to support and keep their front-line staff within the limitations of the ministry.

I. Why People Bum-Out

Most people burn-out or resign somewhere between 6 to 18 months. Very often those who do last are either like "walking dead" or, apart from the mission, they "have no life". The mission is their life.

II. The Job

A. Training

  1. Training helps people to feel adequate to the task and in control. At least one person on your staff should have a four year counseling (or equivalent) degree, or even their masters degree. It not, it is advisable to hire a consultant for evaluations of staff meetings and staff training, to observe that these things are being conducted efficiently.

  2. It is of utmost importance that the mission have job descriptions and an employee handbook. This provides direction for the staff. both as individuals and as a team. Include familiarization with these documents in their training.

B. Work Load

Train staff ahead of time. New staff should not be so immediately immersed that they do not even know what questions to ask. Give them supervised, hands-on training first, not solo training. (This relates to all shifts, even night workers.) That being done, be on-call for the first couple of shifts to observe, provide trouble shooting, etc.

C. Good communication of expectations and limits

  1. In determining healthy boundaries in a particular instance, ask yourself the following questions:

    • Who is this helping?
    • Is this helping the client or am I helping myself?
    • Whose issues are these?
    • How is this beneficial to the client?
    • How will this decision affect my relationship with the client’?
    • Is it a staff or a friend situation?
    • Who else is being affected by this decision?
    • How would others on my team do this?
    • Is anyone's safety, including mine, being potentially compromised?
    • How personal is this information to me, and what is it benefiting the client right now?
    • Is anyone's (staff or client) confidentiality being violated?
    • Am I responding to a crisis, and, if so, is it a valid one?

    Teach these four points to your clients! Let them know that you are following these guidelines!

    a. What will happen if I don’t respond to this immediately?
    b. Failure to plan on our part does not constitute an emergency on my part
    c. Look at the person’s patterns of crisis. Is this the time to confront the behavior?


  2. Don’t stay up all night to help clients with their problems. It is important that they learn that you are not at their beck and call. They must learn not to take advantage of others, and to cope and deal with their own affairs. You are there as a resource, not a crutch.

  3. Clients often think that we are mean or dumb because we don't tell them all the information which they do note really need to know in the first place.  Don't let their attitudes worry you.  Confidentiality are helping people help themselves are important to inner city ministries.

III. The Work Place

In small organizations where promotion is unlikely, staff need to feel challenged. They should always be learning new things in light of their area of ministry and mission work in general.

A. Security

Staff should feel physically safe externally and internally. The parking lot areas should be well lit, alarms installed, and windows or peepholes in are necessary on doors. In overnight shelters, make sure there is a Night Watchman who remains awake while on duty. A panic button in the hallway could be installed for the safety of clients, in the event of a fight or a seizure.

B. Team Building! Teamwork

Trust must be established between employer and employee, and between fellow employers. Rescue workers should enjoy coming to work and seeing each other. Appropriate authority must be given to each staff Always take the side of staff in front of clients. i.e.: "What she says goes" or "He or she was on duty" are fitting responses. If something was done inappropriately or incorrectly, the individual should make it right with the client. When a staff member makes a decision on shift, they need to know that others will support that decision.

1. Goals/Philosophy

It is the supervisors job to get staff to conform to the goals and philosophies of the mission. Those who are not able to obey the rules and standards which have been established in every area or the ministry and operations must be fired.


2. Empowerment & Involvement

Front-line staff should feel ownership in the planning and development of the program; they should be a part of the decision-making processes. They need to feel a part of the team, and when they do, that is when you will have the best results within your organization. Their excitement will get the job done! Once a year it is a good idea to have a retreat strictly for the purpose of program evaluation. Although it is difficult to find relief workers for front line staff, it will pay off because it is they who are best able to advise management of how the existing program is working.


3. Training should be ongoing. Assertiveness must be learned because it is the front-line staff who enforce the rules.


4. The value of positive reinforcement can never be understated.

C. Communication

This is the solution to staff splitting. Keeping an open daily log and progress notes aids in this process. Have clients stick to one confident per issue or they may try and play the staff against each other.

Watch that they do not:

IV. The Issues--Human Resources

A. Hours

Staff should not have long or awkward shifts. Holiday time should be fair Make sure that those who work nights or late into the evening, whether because of their usual shift or in response to an emergency, do not have to work in the morning.

Live-in staff are not recommended unless they have an unusual sense of good boundaries. They must learn to say no in non-emergency situations. They must learn not to answer the phone or the door during off hours. Staff must respect their off-times. A separate entrance is a must.

B. Compensation promotes value. (Remember to be generous in benefits, salary, time off, and perks)

C. Hiring Strategies

A potential staff member should:

D. Clear and adequate written employee and program policies and procedures are necessary.

E. Vacation and sick leave time

Supervisors should make employees take all their vacation time. Sick time is important because staff will become sicker and pass on their sickness to other staff.