Caring for carers: how to stop your people burning out

The disability sector is full of employees who just keep giving, until sometimes there is nothing left for them or their families. What does that mean for you as a manager? You want to get the best from your people, but at the same time, it’s got to be sustainable. Working in disability care is a marathon, not a sprint.

Burnout has high human costs for the people on the front line. It also carries a high cost for your business. No manager wants to keep churning through good people; training them up, and watching them collapse after one or two years.

So how can you spot the early signs of burnout, and take steps while there’s still time?

How to identify and prevent burnout in the disability sector

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight; it creeps up on people. The early symptoms may be subtle, but they often worsen if you don’t get in there and tackle them straight away.

Here are the main warning signs:

  • Persistent sick leave
  • “Presenteeism” (someone who’s physically at work, but not really mentally there)
  • An increase in small mistakes
  • Impatience with clients

What causes burnout?

On the face of it, the answer seems obvious: employees get burnt out when they work too hard for too long. Dig a bit deeper, though, and you realise that employees’ experience of work plays a huge role in how they respond to their work. Do they experience a demanding role as a challenge that they rise to meet — or is it all too much?

Burnout can happen when staff feel that:

  • work demands are unreasonable
  • job expectations are unclear
  • there’s no one to debrief with
  • their values don’t match their employers’
  • they have little say in how to get their work done.


Recruitment is part of the solution. Target candidates who are more likely to rise to the challenge. When you’re interviewing someone, consider: do they show a genuine interest in caring for people with a disability, or is it just a job? Your interview could include personality tools to test candidates’ values and resilience.

But it doesn’t stop there. Even the most engaged employees can burnout. With committed staff, the risk is that they’ll push themselves well past their limits. Have on-the-job support such as:

  • an Employee Assistance Program
  • a structured staff-manager feedback loop
  • training featuring case studies so staff can work through approaches.

On top of this, you can shape your employees’ experience of work by giving them a sense of control. Are there open channels for staff to suggest changes in the way work is done? Is there flexibility in how hours are structured?

On that last point, if you think that flexible rostering is too much of a logistical challenge for your organisation, you might be interested inthis post, which discusses how software like easyEMPLOYER can help.
How do I deal with burnout once it happens?

Even with the best intentions, you’re never going to eliminate burnout. There is good news, though. Research shows that disability service workers are more likely than other caring professions to maintain their sense of professional accomplishment. That gives you a base to work with to get the affected staff member back on track.

If you notice a staff member showing signs of burnout, deal with it head on and offer support to get that staff member the help they need — before they get to the point of needing to resign.

And while it would be ideal to get that person back to being a fully-functioning staff member, in some cases the best solution may be to help them transition to a role that better suits them.

Stay on the look out for the early warning signs of burnout, and have strategies in place to help your people through it.