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DHS news release

Dec. 10, 2007

Contact: Ken Palke, 503-947-5286

Awareness, action can ease disaster worker 'burnout'

Oregon's windstorm and flood disaster is taking an emotional toll on its victims, and many relief and recovery responders also feel the stress, said a disaster psychologist working with the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Responder burnout can seriously impede critical recovery work. But when symptoms are recognized, burnout can be avoided, says Laurel Hughes, Psy. D.


"Disaster response is a high-adrenaline, heavy workload endeavor -- physically, intellectually and emotionally," Hughes explained. "During the early days of a disaster, extra adrenaline fuels an energy rush, but over time, adrenaline levels decrease and workers must take special care not to become exhausted or burned out."

Burnout symptoms
Burnout can be avoided and when caught early can be reversed, said Hughes. Here are some symptoms:

  • Quality or quantity of work drops off.
  • Not caring as much about those being served, coworkers, or the mission.
  • Feeling drained, used up, or emotionally exhausted.
  • Excessive cynicism and irritability. Emotional outbursts.
  • Blaming others rather than looking for solutions.
  • Difficulty relaxing or sleeping, feeling tired, changes in appetite, aches and pains, physical illness, or proneness to accidents.
  • Using more alcohol, caffeine or other substances that alter state of consciousness.
  • Going "AWOL" -- socializing more than working while on the job, or finding excuses not to show up at all.

"When these symptoms are left unattended over time, people may become so burned out that they leave their jobs -- a loss for both the worker and employer," said Hughes. "A better solution is taking time off before the situation becomes serious, or arranging for enough staff so that workers can take breaks before symptoms develop."

Extra TLC needed
Here are some self-care techniques that may help disaster workers and mental health providers preserve energy for the long term:

  • Monitor and pace yourself.
  • Check in regularly with colleagues, family and friends.
  • Work with partners or in teams.
  • Take brief relaxation/stress management breaks.
  • Consult regularly with peers and supervisors.
  • Take time out for basic bodily care and refreshment.
  • Accept that you cannot change everything.
  • Practice flexibility, patience and tolerance.

Note: Hughes was in private practice in Beaverton and a teacher at the University of Portland. As an American Red Cross mental health volunteer, she has participated in some 50 disaster relief efforts since 1993. She authored the Red Cross Foundations of Disaster Mental Health course and has written psychology textbooks.