Carrie Oelberger

Avoiding Burnout with Compassionate Accompaniment: A Novel Approach to Training, Selecting, Managing, and Regulating Frontline Workers

  • Public Administration
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Sociology and Political Science

Abstract A significant amount of nonprofit work happens on the “frontlines”—interacting directly with clients and developing relationships with them in unpredictable and complex social service settings. As a result, frontline work tends to result in high degrees of burnout among staff, manifesting in emotional exhaustion and cynicism towards clients, as well as poor health for workers and ongoing turnover for organizations. How do frontline workers avoid burnout and attrition while doing effective work with clients? Informed by an inductive qualitative research study of frontline workers across 10 social service organizations, this policy brief first presents two approaches to frontline work that I witnessed, both of which have negative impacts on staff and clients. These approaches align with extant scholarship on street-level bureaucracy. I then present a third approach, drawing from a practice of compassionate accompaniment I observed in my research, and which avoids the commonplace negative outcomes. This approach aligns with literature from liberation theology, as well as abolitionist organizing, decolonizing approaches, and feminist theory. Inspired by the practice of compassionate accompaniment, I propose four policy suggestions involving novel processes of training, selecting, managing, and regulating frontline workers to reduce staff burnout and increase their effectiveness with clients.

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