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Beyond Burnout: Helping Teachers, Nurses, Therapists & Lawyers Recover from Stress & Disillusionment


reviewed by Barry Farber - 1996

coverTitle: Beyond Burnout: Helping Teachers, Nurses, Therapists & Lawyers Recover from Stress & Disillusionment
Author(s): Harold Cary Cherniss
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415912067, Pages: 234, Year: 1995
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The study of burnout began in the early 1970s with the observations of a clinical psychologist working at a “drop-in center” for drug addicts in New York’s East Village. Herbert Freudenberger noted that a great proportion of the young and idealistic counselors working there soon appeared as if they themselves were in great distress. Feeling challenged by the enormity of the task and the seemingly insatiable neediness of their clients, these counselors would work harder and harder in order to succeed, stopping only at the point of near total exhaustion. It is the physical and emotional depletion attendant to face-to-face work with needy clients, in conjunction with the lack of a sense of personal accomplishment and the tendency to depersonalize clients, that we now recognize as-the primary characteristics of burnout.


Cary Cherniss, a clinical-community psychologist trained under the aegis of Seymour Sarason at Yale University, has been in the forefront of those studying the concept of burnout, helping to move it from a vague, overused, and somewhat trendy notion to a well-studied phenomenon that must be considered seriously by those wishing to understand the nature of human service work in contemporary society. Cherniss, now a professor of applied psychology at Rutgers University, was among the first to note that burnout, while clearly a function of the relationship between the individual and his or her work environment, must also be viewed as a reflection of a society that makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to find meaning through work. Cherniss has consistently emphasized that there are sources of burnout at the individual, organizational, and societal levels.


In a previous book, Cherniss offered in-depth interviews of a variety of workers (teachers, social workers, psychologists, nurses, and poverty lawyers) to illuminate the complex nature of professional burnout. For his new book, Beyond Burnout, Cherniss decided to re-interview (a decade later) this same group of workers in an attempt to understand how the experience of work evolves over time. How, Cherniss wants to know, have these professionals’ attitudes toward their careers and their values changed? What has been the fate of their earlier sense of idealism and compassion? How have these individuals dealt with those stresses that ordinarily engender burnout? And what lessons can be learned from the experience of these individuals in terms of public policy and the creation of worker-friendly work environments?


Not surprisingly, there was no single answer to any of these questions. In response to the experience of early burnout, some of Cherniss’s subjects did make radical career changes—for example, the poverty lawyer who became a Beverly Hills tax attorney. But some also stayed with their careers, though never regaining the idealism and commitment they had experienced earlier on; it was as if these individuals had decided to reduce their caring and commitment as a way of decreasing their vulnerability to hurt and disappointment. Still others managed to regain the kind of idealism they had felt when they began their work. Cherniss is astute throughout in demythologizing the values of those in human service work. These individuals too attempt to maximize success and minimize failure; like others they need the experience of success to sustain commitment. “Like most Americans, helping professionals are impatient with slow progress” (p. 61) Teachers, Cherniss notes, will surely feel “frustrated and ineffectual” if most of their students “do not make visible and significant improvements during a certain period of time” (p. 61). All professionals, notes Cherniss, need to adopt a realistic time perspective in order to vitiate the impact of the inevitable frustrations of human service work.


Furthermore, the majority of the subjects in this study were considerably more satisfied with their work situations in mid-career than they were earlier. Because they were more senior, their working conditions had improved; in addition, because they had lowered their expectations, they were less vulnerable to frustration; and, as a consequence of their growing self-awareness, these professionals were better able to identify and engage in those aspects of their work that felt most personally satisfying. Those individuals who were best able to cultivate special interests (“a pet project”) in their setting were especially able to feel committed to their work and were, as a consequence, less vulnerable to boredom and job dissatisfaction.


Several other factors were found to diminish these professionals’ vulnerability to stress and burnout: an active rather than a passive response to work frustrations; a drive to continue to learn new skills; an ability to balance the needs of family and career; a work setting that offers both support and the opportunity for autonomy. But, as Cherniss concludes, even those individuals who were able to establish successful careers were ultimately unsuccessful in one crucial respect: “Few of them could recover—or discover—that sense of purpose, that feeling of transcendence, which fueled their efforts in the beginning” (p. 182). This, of course, will come as no surprise to those who have studied the careers of such human service professionals as teachers and who have come to understand that we sow the seeds of burnout by expecting workers, especially those who work in difficult environments with troubled and/or extremely needy clients, to sustain the same level of idealism and enthusiasm they had when they began their careers.


Much of the strength of this book comes from its reliance on extensive interview data. The values, strengths, disappointments, and compromises of the individuals interviewed by Cherniss are compellingly depicted. Moreover, Cherniss consistently avoids simplistic conclusions or formulations; burnout and related phenomena are understood, as they need to be, as outcomes resulting from multiple, interactive sources. Similarly, individuals are not criticized—as they too often have been by others—for failing to be extraordinary in nearly impossible situations; There are flaws in this effort: Conclusions drawn from a sample of but twenty-six individuals in a variety of occupations are necessarily suspect; there is an unfortunate neglect of much of the recent empirical research on burnout. But, overall, this is an excellent and important book. Cherniss has taken a unique, longitudinal perspective on an important topic. Even more important, though, he has understood what putative reformers of certain professions (e.g., teaching) too often have not: that the needs of the workers them selves must be understood and satisfied in order for clients to benefit from their efforts.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 2, 1996, p. 352-354
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9627, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 3:39:48 PM

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