The mental health field has some of the most stressful work environments, with the highest turnaround rates reaching up to 37 percent for mental health workers, according to Relias Learning. Keeping staff engaged in their work can often be as challenging as keeping clients involved in their own mental health treatment. Employers work tirelessly to find new, innovative ways of supporting their staff to avoid dissatisfaction and burnout.
Staff experience burnout for all kinds of reasons – and sometimes without even realizing it.
When you ask a mental health worker why they do what they do, they will often answer with, “To be the person that I needed when I was in a mental health crisis,” or something similar to, “I want to help people.” People generally know what their mission in this field is and why they chose this line of work in the first place.
Mission vs Shadow Mission Definitions
A person’s mission is often something close to their heart that reminds them the hard days are worth it. What’s harder to identify is when a person is out of touch with their mission. This is referred to as a “shadow mission” when a person has been unintentionally and imperceptibly derailed from their original mission. While living a shadow mission is not ideal, it can be a useful tool in recognizing burnout in yourself, peers, and staff members.
You could think of a shadow mission as the opposite of a person’s mission statement; it is the unhealthy coping mechanisms a staff member begins to display when they are not performing their best and when their true mission takes a backseat in order to survive day by day. This happens during the burnout stage when their self-care has been neglected or when the stress of the job begins to overwhelm their system and they lose touch with their mission. Examples can include shutting people out to avoid conflict, irritability towards co-workers, staying in bed and avoiding the workplace, giving into insecurities and shutting down, as well as many others that are unique to the individual. It can be beneficial for both the worker and the employer to understand each unique person’s mission and shadow missions so they can identify who may be struggling.
Identifying Your Mission and Shadow Mission
Identifying your shadow mission is simply a question of, “What do I do when I am beginning to burn out.”
For me, my mission is to teach and support. When I am in my mission and excited about my work, I over-communicate, teach, and support the staff around me, creating a safe space for growth and open communication.
My shadow mission shows up as letting judgment cloud facts. I assume that everyone knows what I know which leads to miscommunications and important messages slipping through the cracks. Those misunderstandings then become a judgement as to why that person didn’t do things the way I would have with the information and experience that I have. I assume we know and learned the same things, but often this is not the case.
By recognizing that I make these judgments in the beginning stages of burnout, I can self-regulate and identify my needs in order to keep myself in my mission and out of my shadow mission as much as possible. By informing my co-workers and superiors about what my shadow mission looks like, they can also help hold me accountable – and vice versa. We can meet each other where we are and support one another when we’re needing it most.
In this way, missions and shadow missions can be used to navigate the constant burnout we are seeing in today’s working world. If you are a leader, you could start incorporating shadow mission check-ins into your meetings with direct reports, or simply ask your staff to work on identifying their mission and shadow mission so you are in the know.
Start by asking:
• What is your mission?
• Why do you do what you do?
• How does your shadow mission show up?
• What do you do when you’re burning out?
• How can your peers support you when you feel this way?
This practice can go beyond the workforce and can be used at home. Any time we can check in with those around us in a non-judgmental manner, we can encourage growth, self-awareness, openness, and support.
This blog article was contributed by Maggie Justice, Youth Support Professional for the Southeast Regional Crisis Center.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 45 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.