African youth workers don’t need to be able to distinguish between compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and secondary trauma – our job isn’t to diagnose but to support and empower. We just need to be aware of the risks and identify the warning signs in ourselves, our teammates or the youth workers we supervise.

Common signs of burnout or trauma to watch out for are:

  • Physical stress, for example: feeling tense, having palpitations, stomach problems, headaches etc.
  • Emotional stress, for example:
    • Nightmares, for instance about something a young person or colleague has shared with you.
    • An increase in symptoms relating to your own personal trauma, such as more flashbacks or anxiety.
    • New feelings of anxiety, fear or anger, racing thoughts etc.
    • Feeling jumpy or easily startled.
  • In your youth work:
    • Low job satisfaction (like not feeling happy or caring when a young person or colleague achieves something).
    • Feeling frustrated by or judgmental of the young people you work with, or colleagues, and struggling to see their good qualities.
    • Feeling unable to support young people or colleagues.
    • Increased conflict at work [or at home].
    • Avoiding your youth work or talking about it.
  • In life:
    • Feeling exhausted, fatigued, overwhelmed, or burned out.
    • Feeling under pressure, powerless and overwhelmed.
    • Not taking breaks, eating on the run, not eating properly.
    • Being unable to refuel and regenerate properly.
    • Having frequent sick days.
    • Spending time alone because we feel a need to withdraw from others.
    • Loss of connection with others and losing a sense of who we are.
    • Loss of pleasure in daily activities.

This list is not exhaustive; you may find a colleague or yourself experiencing all or only one of these. Different people will respond to stress in different ways, and a group experiencing the same trauma may respond in various ways, some immediately and others later.

We are conscious that culturally, we as African women do not always respond to shocks and setbacks in the same way as Europeans or Americans, who have developed most of these resources. Consequently, the important thing is for all of us to listen to our colleagues and resist the urge to tell them to ‘just get on with it’ if they are humble and brave enough to share that they are feeling overwhelmed.

Reflection Questions

  1. There are useful tools that can help to self-diagnose burnout, such as this: Take the test and think about the results. Are you surprised?
  2. If you do have burnout, or signs of burnout, do you know you can talk to arrange a break?
  3. If you are leading other youth workers, what can you do to make sure that they are encouraged to rest and recuperate? If you identify these signs in them, how can you help them in a sensitive way?

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