Updated 26 June 2014

Managing stress and burnout

The following skills or tips may help caregivers and counsellors to cope with the pressure of working in the HIV/Aids field...


The following skills or tips may help caregivers and counsellors to cope with the pressure of working in the HIV/Aids field:

Re-evaluate your professional expectations:

  • Know yourself.
  • Take time to think about what you realistically can expect from yourself and your clients or patients.
  • Set new more realistic goals if necessary.
  • Don’t take responsibility for things you cannot help or change.
  • Know what causes you stress, and work actively to reduce stress: learn to say no, share your workload, work co-operatively and not competitively.
  • Accept that you can only do your best, and nothing more, and that you are not perfect. You don’t always have to be “the best”. Allow yourself to be the ‘Good Enough Practitioner’.
  • Learn to set boundaries, to create limits and to say NO to unreasonable helping requests. Learn to pace yourself.
  • Have both long and short-term goals in your work with clients. In this manner, you may feel rewarded or have a sense that progress is being made along the way towards achieving your long-term vision.

Care for yourself:

  • You are responsible for your own physical and mental health. Look after yourself.
  • A healthy diet, and enough exercise, rest and sleep are important.
  • Nurture yourself. Take time out to do things that you enjoy, like walking, listening to music, or reading.
  • Search actively for ways to cope with stress that work for you, and use it: Relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, visualisation, yoga, self-hypnosis or meditation.
  • Learn how to be professional, but also how to be playful, have fun, tell jokes and laugh.
  • Find ways in which to spoil yourself: A bubble bath and chocolates, dinner with friends, a game of golf.
  • Create strict boundaries between your professional and personal lives.
  • Force yourself to forget the suffering of your patients when you close the door to go home.
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    Use support systems:
    • Create and use your personal support systems – someone like a spouse or partner to talk to.
    • Talk and listen to your colleagues. Share your concerns, problems and fears. To talk to a colleague about your frustrating experiences can help to ‘cleanse’ or purge you, allowing you to sweep clean and continue in your work.
    • Take initiative and form your own support group at work, if support groups do not exist.

    Continuous training:

    • Do refresher courses and upgrade your skills.
    • Talk about stress, burnout and coping skills in training sessions.

    Work in a team:
    Spreads the burden of care and responsibility by working in a multidisciplinary team if possible.(E.g. as volunteers from the church to sit with or read for a patient)

    Expression of grief:
    Take the time off to grief for a patient if you need it (e.g. an extra tea break).


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HIV/Aids expert

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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