Practice what you preach

When Cathy Morgan interviewed for the position of medical records director at Portage Path Behavioral Health — Summit County’s largest health care provider of outpatient behavioral services — the clincher in her acceptance of the job offer was the organization’s attentiveness to employee wellness.

“They don’t just preach about job burnout, they practice ways to prevent it from happening in their own workplace,” she says.

Statistics show tens of millions of workers in the United States suffer from job burnout, a condition psychologist Herbert Freudenbeger (who claims credit for the term) defines as “a depletion of energy and a feeling of being overwhelmed.”

Author and business consultant Robert W. Bly says job burnout is a steady, increasing dissatisfaction with one’s job that can result in symptoms ranging from fatigue, apathy, boredom, irritability and difficulty concentrating to anxiety, cynicism, low self esteem, severe depression and physical illness.

Morgan knows first hand the causes of job burnout, having previously worked in a health care setting where 12-hour days and weekend overtime were mandatory. She liked her job and her colleagues, she says, but after a few years of working such long, hard hours, she bordered on burnout.

“Now, when I find myself working past 5 p.m., it’s usually that I’ve lost track of time because I enjoy doing what I do here,” Morgan says.

Tracy Yaeger Ph.D., vice president of clinical operations at Portage Path, says the Akron area health care provider strategically works to prevent job burnout through methods such as establishing team support systems, setting incentive and reward programs, offering educational opportunities and promoting job diversity. In addition to flex time and a competitive benefits package, employees are encouraged to take on-site exercise classes and participate in an internal golf league and other staff outings, such as Akron Aeros games and company events.

David Coe, a psychiatric counselor at Portage Path, says the organization’s concern with employee health and job satisfaction makes a positive difference in how he feels about his job.

“The agency’s interest in our emotional health helps us to feel good about being here, and when we’re feeling good and enjoying our jobs, we’re going to be here every day, in a good frame of mind,” Coe says.

Tim Morgan, Portage Path’s senior vice president, says the approach engenders premium patient care, and affects trickle-down cost savings in terms of less sick time, higher attendance and greater productivity.

“These people work very hard in a very difficult business, dealing daily with multiple problems and challenges,” Morgan says, pointing out that Portage Path’s 40 counselors and 10 psychiatrists — along with nurses and caseworkers — typically carry about 3,000 open cases. “The public tends to dismiss some of what we do here.”

In addition to being a private, nonprofit organization, Portage Path is a major partner of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction, Mental Health Service Board, which plans, funds and monitors mental health services for Summit County citizens.

With that in mind, Morgan says, a “take-care-of-your-own” philosophy is crucial to achieve Portage Path’s mission to provide mental health services.

Yaeger says the Portage Path team support model is one of the most important systems in place that prevents employee burnout.

“It’s a big job to take care of so many people and it is very difficult for a professional to practice mental health treatment long term over a long period of time. So we structured treatment teams of colleagues and created a team atmosphere in which to work.”

Twice a week, five clinician teams meet separately to review cases, share treatment ideas and get support. Weekly, each team’s coordinator attends a meeting in which all the coordinators share information and comments.

“The team model promotes communication among all the counselors, psychiatrists, nurses and case managers, and it takes a lot of the pressure off because everybody has input into what the best treatment may be,” Coe says. “By having more people working as a team for the benefit of one client, the client gets the best care, and the team supports each other in the endeavor.”

Portage Path also promotes cross training and job diversity.

“Anything we can do to add to the variety of work they do in their days here helps prevent burnout,” Yaeger says. “Rather than doing the same thing day after day, we encourage people to vary their client base so their caseloads are heterogeneous. We also encourage public speaking engagements where they can present what they do in ways other than just therapy and treatment.”

Psychiatric counselor Bob Bingham says another plus at Portage Path is the opportunity to fulfill continuing education requirements without leaving the office.

“If you want to learn and still have a life, on the third Thursday of every month they have in-service programs where they bring in continuing education programs and workshops, so we don’t have to go to an off-site agency,” Bingham says.

Yaeger says the in-service programs at the Akron Clinic also afford the opportunity for clinicians in the organization’s North Summit, Barberton and Psychiatric Emergency Services clinics to network with colleagues they don’t see regularly.

Portage Path also brings life enrichment programs onsite, such as self care, stress reduction and humor workshops.

“The programs help us look at our own lives to regain focus and balance, so we don’t get burned out,” Coe says. “If we were burned out or stressed, we wouldn’t be much help to anyone else.”

How to reach: Portage Path Behavioral Health, (330) 253-4118.

Where are you on the burnout scale?

When unrealistically high expectations become part of the corporate culture and high stress levels become commonplace, absenteeism increases, teamwork diminishes and turnover beanstalks. The big picture? Everybody loses: employees, customers and the business itself. To see how you rate on the job burnout scale, log onto Snelling Personnel’s Web site and take Snelling Personnel’s Job Burnout Quiz.