1997-98 Academy Text Supplement
Coping With Stress and Preventing Burnout
Abstract: Numerous training programs have been developed that address
stress and burnout related to work in general and certain professions in particular. In
addition, there are countless schools of thought on how to intervene with employees who
experience stress-related symptoms. This chapter discusses the unique stressors
experienced by victim service providers, including the stress of working with issues
related to crime victimization and advocacy and dealing with the limitations of the
criminal justice and community service systems. Techniques for recognizing and
managing stress and preventing burnout are also presented.
Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will
understand the following concepts:
1. Recognition of the unique stressors involved in handling crime victims' issues.
2. Understanding of the stressors that are typically a part of working environments.
3. Recognition of important and early signs of stress before the stress becomes
overwhelming for the individual.
4. Suggested methods for relieving stress, including relaxation techniques.
- The cost of occupational stress to business and industry in monetary terms has become
increasingly well documented. Annually, US industry loses approximately 550 million
working days due to absenteeism. It is estimated that 54 percent of these absences are
in some way stress-related. (Elkin, A. & Rosch, P. (1990). "Promoting Mental Health at Work."
Occupational Medicine: State of the Art Review, Vol. 5, p. 739-54.)
- According to a 1994 Gallup Poll survey of a representative sample of Americans from all
walks of life, roughly four in ten of all American adults, and more than half of those age
35 - 54, report that stress is a frequent part of their daily lives. Respondents gave the
following answers to Gallup Poll's question: How often do you experience stress in your
(Paulsen, B. (1994, October). "Work and Play, a Nation Out of Balance." Health, Vol. 8., no. 6., p. 44.)
- Prolonged stress of police commanders and supervisors causes 90 percent of
physiological and psychological diseases. ("The Police Survivor and Stress." (1996, May). The
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Vol. 65, No. 5., p. 7.)
- Researchers at the American Institute for Stress, a non-profit organization based in New
York, suggest that 75 to 90 percent of patient's visits to physicians are for ailments that
have some kind of link with stress and that controlling stress could be instrumental in
controlling rising health care costs. (Nowroozi, C. (1994, December). "How Stress Can Make You
Sick." Nation's Business, Vol. 82, No. 12, p. 82(1).)
- Medical researchers have found evidence that stress influences the immune system,
weakening the body's defenses against many viral disorders. Preliminary research
conducted by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania found that of 400
people intentionally exposed to common-cold viruses, those who scored highest on a test
of stressful life events were more than twice as likely to develop colds after this exposure
than people who scored the lowest. (Ibid.)
- Dr. Paul Rosch, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at New York Medical College,
believes that stress is more powerful than diet in influencing cholesterol levels. He cites
several studies -- including one of medical students around exam time and another of
accountants during tax season -- that have shown significant increases in cholesterol levels
during stressful events, when there was little change in diet. (Ibid.)
Unique Sources of Stress in Working with Crime Victims
Professionals who assist crime victims face several unique sources of stress that go beyond the
typical stressors experienced by those in other work environments. Victim service providers are
expected to provide comforting, compassionate support for crime victims, while at the same time
they are expected to be outspoken advocates to ensure that victims are extended their rights
within the justice system and that they receive necessary services. In addition, many crime victim
professionals work within the very system they are trying to impact and know all to well its
limitations. The responsibility of serving in sometimes conflicting roles can be a major source of
Another source of stress that often affects those in the helping professions relates to the desire
to help those in need. How do you know when enough is really enough? This question plagues
the victim service profession and often arises in trainings conducted on stress and burnout for
victim service providers. Without accepted standards for the field, with varying organizational
policies on how far the role of the victim service provider extends, and without a "manual" on
what it takes to provide reasonable and appropriate victim assistance, most victim service
providers find they must set their own limits. This, too, can cause stress.
Finally, the nature of the work causes many crime victim advocates to be in regular contact with
people who have suffered severe trauma and loss. To assist victims of crime effectively requires
tremendous emotional energy and resilience and is a near-constant source of stress. Stressful
situations that the victim-serving community may encounter include:
- Working with victims and witnesses who have experienced or witnessed acts of
indescribable human cruelty.
- Working with children who have suffered repeated inhumane acts of sexual,
physical, or other abuse.
- Dealing with grieving family members of deceased victims -- immediately after a
homicide when providing death notification or in the days or weeks that follow.
- Assisting scores of victims and survivors in the aftermath of mass murder or
- Working with victims who, for a variety of reasons, continue to be at risk for
These represent work-related stressors that are quite different from most job settings and may
affect an individual victim advocate in profound ways.
Understanding Your Ability to Tolerate Stress
An individual's ability to tolerate stress often depends on the frequency, severity, and types of
stressors confronted. It also depends on many intrinsic or personal characteristics, including:
- Personal values and attitudes
In addition, several external or organizational factors can contribute to stress. A brief list of these
- Job conflict or job ambiguity
- External agency conflicts
- Organizational culture and environment
- Over qualification for current position
- Changes in organizational structure
Manifestations of Stress: Recognizing the Signs
Stress has an effect on all aspects of an individual's emotions and behavior, as well as his/her
physical health. Researchers generally divide the manifestations of stress into three general
categories: psychological, behavioral, and physical. Most training programs on stress begin with
an overview of psychological indicators of stress. The symptoms of psychological stress can
include the following:
There are also behavioral symptoms associated with stress. These symptoms can affect an
individual's work performance, such as:
- Inability to make decisions
- Increased interpersonal conflicts
- Blocked creativity or judgment
Finally, the physical manifestations of stress are often ignored by the individual experiencing long
periods of stress until they reach the point of critical consequences. Common signs of the
physical impact of stress include:
- Changes in sleeping patterns, such as insomnia
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- High blood pressure
- Changes in eating patterns
- Susceptibility to illness
Additional Signs of Stress
Other signs of being highly stressed include the following observations expressed by victim
service providers who have attended stress workshops throughout the field. These signs include
- Loss of concentration on work.
- Inability to feel empathy with all or some crime victims.
- Inability to meet deadlines.
- A constant frustration with the lack of adequate monetary compensation.
- Uncharacteristic forgetfulness, such as leaving a wallet or purse behind.
- Fighting with friends and family over insignificant events.
- Feeling overwhelmed with his/her job and a sense that it is consuming one's life.
- A lack of being able to put current stressor into perspective.
- A feeling of inadequate reward and recognition from the agency for constant
- Being overwhelmed with the desire to seek other employment, but feeling there
are few options to do so.
Recognizing Stress in Your Working Environment
In addition to the inherent stress involved in responding to crime victims, victim service providers
also face many other circumstances that add to their stress in the working environment. While
criminal justice-based victim service professionals may face different stressors than professionals
in community-based agencies, there are common stressors experienced by most victim service
In March of 1997, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released a comprehensive report entitled
Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for Officers and Their Families. NIJ's Report
provides a list of psychological stressors facing law enforcement officers. Developed by Dr.
Terry Eisenberg, the report has been used by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in
their law enforcement training programs. The following overview of stressors facing victim
services professionals has been adapted from Dr. Eisenberg's work as reported in the NIJ Report.
Common Sources of Victim Service Provider Stress
- Isolation: Victim service providers often experience a sense of isolation if they feel they
are the only victim serving agency in the community.
- Funding pressures: Most victim services agencies face funding pressures and must seek
financial support for their agency from a variety of local, state, and federal sources. This
can give staff a sense of insecurity in not always knowing if their position will be funded
for the following year.
- Irregular work schedule: Many victim services agencies offer 24-hour assistance to
victims of crime; thus staff must rotate their schedules to provide coverage. Even in
agencies that have "regular" business hours, staff often have to work overtime to meet
the needs of crime victims -- from emergency funeral arrangements, to preparing victims
for trials, to providing crisis intervention and counseling, etc.
- Sense of helplessness or hopelessness: The inability to resolve completely victims'
problems confronts victim services providers on a daily basis.
- Absence of closure: Much of the work of victim service providers is fragmented --
making a referral, assisting the victim in filling out a compensation claim, or providing
short-term crisis intervention. For example, very few victim service providers assist the
victim through the entire criminal justice process. The crisis counselor on call when the
victim first contacts the agency may not be the same advocate as the one who is the court
advocate. Thus, opportunities for feedback on the outcome of a case is minimal.
- Role conflict: It has long been said that an effective victim services provider must be able
to wear several hats. One moment being a kind, sensitive, supportive counselor, and
the next moment, being a strong, outspoken advocate on behalf of the victim to ensure
their rights are accorded.
- On-going human suffering and cruelty: On a daily basis, victim service providers are
exposed to the inequalities and brutalities of life. Over time, the exposure to human
suffering, and the daily outpouring of empathy by victim service providers to each victim,
may take its toll.
- Lack of referral agencies: Often, the lack of other agencies to help victims -- whether
they are other criminal justice-based or community-based agencies -- can often frustrate
the victim services provider and may add to the already overburdened workload.
- Frustration with the criminal justice system: Victim service providers, both within and
without the criminal justice system, are often frustrated with many aspects of the criminal
justice system -- finding out the hard way that many victims' rights are simply not
implemented due to a lack of education and knowledge of criminal justice professionals
about victims' rights, a lack of funding for victim assistance programs across the criminal
justice continuum, and often, because the system is simply overloaded.
- Poor equipment: The lack of current technology that makes the demands of the
workplace easier, such as computers for entering client reports and reporting data to
funding agencies, or automated notification systems, adds to the workload of victim
- Frustration with supervisors: The actions and attitudes of supervisors can either increase
or help alleviate the stress of the job.
- Lack of career opportunities: Opportunities for promotion are viewed by staff as being
limited or unfair. This is a particular problem in victim services agencies that have a few
or small staff and few opportunities for advancement exist within the agency.
- Inadequate rewards: Recognition for a job well done is rare; however criticism for
mistakes is frequent.
- Extensive paperwork: The need for extensive or duplicate reporting on client case loads
to meet the reporting requirements of different federal and state grants that support
agency activities is viewed as burdensome.
Techniques to Help Prevent Stress
from Becoming Burnout
Burnout is a severe reaction to stress that results in a state of physical and emotional depletion
from the conditions of one's occupation (Public Service Commission, 1991). Because of the
intense nature of the work required by the field of victim assistance -- dealing on a daily basis with
issues involving injury and death, frustrations faced with each new case requiring renewed
advocacy, compassion, and vigor, and often low pay and a lack of job security -- burnout can
occur. In addition to reducing the number of stressors, the following techniques are suggested
for program directors to help to try and prevent staff burnout. This information is not only for
program directors, it also can serve a useful purpose for program staff to assess whether their
agency is taking necessary steps to prevent staff burnout.
(The following information has been adapted from Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for
Officers and Their Families, National Institute of Justice, March 1997.)
To prevent burnout of victim services staff, program directors should:
- Warn new victim assistance staff about not over-identifying with the job. Let
them know about the possibility, nature, and symptoms of burnout, and encourage
them to monitor their own vulnerability.
- Meet regularly with staff to discuss and resolve problems of work overload.
- Arrange for scheduled staff meetings at which experienced and inexperienced
victim service providers discuss the impact of their work on their own emotions
- Help victim service providers set limits on how much time they will spend on the
job and give them an opportunity (without guilt) to refuse on occasion to accept
certain assignments, especially if the individual is responding to emergencies too
- Help victim service providers understand the limits of what they can expect to
accomplish in their work in terms of helping victims as well as in achieving
organizational or system-wide change.
- Assist victim service providers to tolerate some stress by helping them to develop
an awareness that they are doing important work that affects people's lives. This
obvious, but critical information, is often forgotten or minimized by overworked
- Encourage victim service providers to take vacation time -- without their work
and their beepers.
- Promote a work environment that encourages victim service providers to get
regular exercise before, during, and after work. Explore agency discounts for
group health club memberships.
- Encourage your agency to provide training opportunities for staff to increase their
knowledge, skills, and confidence level in their daily work, as well as to foster
opportunities to promote career advancement.
Tips for Helping to Relieve Stress
The following information is provided by Dodi Christiano, M.A., a licensed professional
counselor who specializes in not only treating individual patients with stress-related problems,
but also in conducting community education on stress management.
It is important to have balance in your life: balance between work and play; between adult social
time and alone time; between family time, physical activity time and spiritual expression. Assess
your priorities; make time for each category. Look at how you establish your priorities. Do you
only do things you "have to" or do you include things you "want to" do. Try to turn the "have-to's" into "want-to's'.
How you think can have a profound affect on your emotional and physical well-being. Each time
you think a negative thought about yourself, your body reacts as if it were in the throes of a
tension-filled situation. If you see good things about yourself, you are more likely to feel good --
the reverse is also true. Eliminate words such as "always," "never," "should," and "must." These
are telltale marks of self-defeating thoughts. Talk to yourself, switch negative self statements to
positive statements. For example, "I can do....(whatever it is you are setting out to do)" or, "I
made a mistake, but I can do....(whatever it is you are setting out to do)" or, "I made a mistake,
but I do a lot of things right."
Relaxation, Meditation, Guided Imagery
Physiologically relaxing your body brings down heart rate, blood pressure and slows breathing.
These are all manifestations of stress release in your body. Work up to at least once per day (20-30 minutes) to center yourself with meditation, relaxation exercises, or guided imagery tapes.
Our bodies were designed to move. Built up stress can be difficult by physical activity. Walk if
you cannot do anything else. Aerobic activity, on a regular basis, plays a significant role in
boosting the immune system. Work up to incorporating some form of physical exercise three
times per week.
Fun and Laughter
There is a measured effect of the relaxation response after a good laugh. Laughing reduces
stress! Do something playful at least once per week, if not once per day. Have fun in your life!
Relaxation Exercises for Relieving Stress
Stress can be relieved in a number of ways. The same method may not work each time an
individual attempts to relieve stress -- so you must try different things. One way to reduce stress
is to employ relaxation techniques. The following overview provides some exercises victim
service providers can use to relax. Each exercise usually takes 15 to 20 minutes, but "mini"
sessions can always be tried in situations where one is pressed for time and in desperate need of
some stress relief. (Sharp, 1996).
- Deep breathing: Take a deep, slow breath. Let the air come in through your nose and
move deep into your lower stomach. Then breathe out through your mouth. Repeat this
for several minutes. Imagine that the air coming in carries peace and calm, and the air you
exhale contains your tension.
- Body scan: Close you eyes and do some deep breathing exercises. Then, in your mind,
do a scan of your entire body, beginning with the top of your head and moving down to
your feet. With each breath, focus on a different part of your body. As you breathe in,
notice any muscle tension in the various parts of your body. As you breathe out, let go
of that tension.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): As you perform a body scan, tighten the muscles
in each area to increase the tension. Then slowly release the tension. Do this for each
part of your body, from head to toe. You will find that you feel much more relaxed after
letting go of the tension.
- Meditation: Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down, and close your eyes. As you
breathe deeply, repeat a word or sound over and over again either to yourself or softly
aloud. Concentrating on your breathing or on the repeated word helps you to focus your
attention. Meditation can help you to slow down your breathing and heart rate, ease
muscular tension, and to respond calmly to stressful situations. Once you are used to
meditating, you can use it to relieve stress while you stand, walk, or jog. Some people
even meditate while doing everyday things such as waiting for the bus, doing the dishes,
- Guided imagery: Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Then close your eyes and take
a few slow, deep breaths. Now imagine you are in a place where you know you can relax,
such as on the beach or in your bed. Now visualize yourself at this one spot. Take in the
sounds, smells, and scenery around you. Savor them one by one. As you become
more experienced with imagery, you can use it anywhere. For example, if stress takes
over your mind while you are waiting for someone to show up for an appointment, take
a couple of minutes to use imagery to relax so you can focus.
- Yoga: This is one of the oldest relaxation techniques. There are many different kinds of
yoga, but all involve physical poses, meditation, and deep breathing. Everything you do
as you practice yoga helps to strengthen, stretch, and relax both your mind and body.
There are many classes, books, and videos available to help teach you how to practice this
ancient relaxation technique.
- Aerobic exercise: Finally, any kind of physical exercise, whether it is a team sport or a
simple walk at lunch time, can help reduce stress. Remember, if you can release pent-up
energy, your body will benefit in the long run.
Self Examination Chapter 21, Section 14
Coping With Stress and Preventing Burnout
1) What are three symptoms of psychological stress?
2) What are three physical manifestations of stress?
3) What are four common organizational stressors?
4) There are many ways for organizations to help reduce stress on employees;
list at least three.
5) What techniques can you use to reduce stress?
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Finn, P. & Tomz, J. (1997). "Developing a Law Enforcement Stress Program for Officers and
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Nowroozi, C. (1994). "How Stress Can Make You Sick." Nation's Business, 82 (12), 82.
Palmer, S. & Drydan, W. (1996). Stress Management and Counseling: Theory, Practice,
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Paulsen, B. (1994). "Work and Play, A Nation out of Balance." Health, 8, (6), 44.
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