March 23, 2022

I have a favorite memory about my Mom. She would come home from work, get into bed, and turn on the electric blanket. She cracked open a Harlequin romance novel and would read for an hour. I would get up on the bed and rumple the blanket into mountains and hills and drive my hot wheel trucks up and down the mountains until we went down to make dinner.

Thinking about that memory years later, let me add some commentary. My Mother was amazing. Despite enormous barriers, she went back to school with five kids at home and earned her Master’s Degree in Social Work. For the time she lived in, many Mother’s were expected to stay home. Despite not needing the income, she loved to work because she wanted to make a difference within and outside of her home. With her degree and a whole lot of hard work, she became the CEO of a non-profit working with young women in crisis. This often required evening and weekend work since crisis usually isn’t contained between 8 and 5. Because I was her youngest, I got to tag along quite often.

One Saturday she told me to load up the new skateboard she bought me because we were going to lunch. We showed up at an apartment of a young woman who was elated to have my Mother in her tiny apartment. This was a young woman my Mother had counseled with and helped establish a new life. Walking into the apartment I was immediately struck with how many cat hairs were laying on everything. As we sat down for lunch with this young woman, a cat hair gently settled into the middle of my soup bowl. With all the tact that most 12 year olds can muster I was about to blurt out my disgust when a severe kick to my shins occurred under the table just moments before opening my big mouth. Without missing a beat, my sweet Mother asked her friend if it would be okay if I went outside to try out my new skateboard. I was elated and bolted outside for the afternoon.

What does this have to do with hot wheels and Harlequins? Well, I realize now that my Mother spent so much time giving herself to others, that she needed a moment each day to do something totally different to refuel and detach. Failing to refuel and detach can lead to burnout. Or, in more technical terms, vicarious traumatization, which is defined as a “transformation in the self of a trauma worker or helper that results from empathic engagement with traumatized clients and their reports of traumatic experiences.”

To my good HR friends out there, you spend your days listening to employees in crisis. You help people navigate shoddy supervisors, of careers that feel dead ended, of employees needing leaves of absence because of death, divorce, or illness. You deal with enforcing policies and laws that you had no hand in creating, and you are often sent in to mop a mess that you did not create. After doing this for years you can little by little start to carry a bit of that stress and trauma of others with you - leading to your burnout.

So, look for those signs in you that you are carrying too much. Pay attention to your self-care. Find your release. One of my colleagues ran her stress off. Another one gardened. One was a beekeeper. And another was a classic movie buff. Whatever it is, please find your hot wheels/harlequin moments of relief because we need you around. You are important and making a difference.

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