The Hamster Wheel of Former Helping Professionals

One of the most startling images of the pandemic was the common sight of health professionals working around the clock treating the victims of COVID. Banging pots, musical tributes, and other forms of gratefulness probably did not touch the depth of burnout these folks were to feel day after day, week after week, month after month.

One need not only have been in the medical professions during the pandemic to arrive at retirement and feel such intense burnout. Those in the fields of counseling, education, social work, and ministry have also accumulated a significant number of stressors over the course of their careers. Moving into retirement, it is difficult to disconnect from the tendencies which first landed us in these professions to begin with.

We might be experiencing “compassion fatigue,” the exhaustion caused by intense personal interactions repeatedly throughout the day. We have been healers, nurturers, caregivers, sounding boards, and the omnipresent listeners, possibly for decades!

The Siren Call

Although these careers have many personal negatives, there are excellent reasons why young people still work for those credentials. A helping profession is defined as a profession that nurtures the growth of, or addresses the problems of a person’s physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional or spiritual well-being.

Careers in these fields are meaningful and rewarding. There is great joy in the daily work which is part of something much larger than oneself. These folks are motivated more by goals, than their paychecks. suggests that career seekers take the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to find their calling. The personality types which lead the way into these fields have the monikers of Counselor, Giver, Idealist, Champion, Doer and Nurturer.

It Starts in the Womb

Research from the University of Reading in the UK has found that 40% of the willingness to help others is inherited. I was definitely born into this cohort.

My first memory of being chastised for my uber-altruism was at age 7 by my grandmother, when she perceived I gave too much of my allowance to a charity volunteer collecting coins on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ. My mother frequently told me I was “generous to a fault.” Little did they both know that my altruism was a result of traits that they passed on, but that they didn’t actually manifest themselves. I guess it was no great surprise that I chose education as my profession: a daily opportunity to stoke those instincts of helping others.

Burn Out Then and Now

My retired colleagues in the caring professions have all been subject to burnout, emotional shutdown, disengagement, and feelings of hopelessness for many years. We seem to have a compulsion to prove ourselves, work harder, neglect personal needs, displace conflicts and deny problems, often leading to depression and withdrawal.

It would be surprising if some of these events did not lead to early retirement for many of us, as it did with me.

In retirement, after a long retreat from the world, of course I began to search for volunteer opportunities. Because the field of education was so tainted for me, I wanted to work with my hands, and became a gardening and livestock volunteer. I considered these pursuits “selfish,” because they were fun and not the typical ways of helping.

Further down the road, during the pandemic, I worked weekly at a local food distribution, packing bags of vegetables outside all through the cold winter. I also now work for the League of Women Voters during voting registration time on college campuses, running after college students during change of classes to get them to sign up. The latter two gigs are more aligned with my concept of “helping.”

I constantly need to have deep conversations with myself about not overdoing things in the volunteer arena. I’ve previously written on this subject on Luckily, my social worker son (it runs in the genes) encouraged me to resign from the food distribution when I complained about the working conditions. As a LWV volunteer, I now only do one shift during election season.

How to Exit the Hamster Wheel

For those of us previously in nurturing vocations, the suggestions to avoid burnout for current employees apply to us in retirement! Please note – these apply in all situations, not just when volunteering, but especially in social interactions with friends, family, and others.

  1. Gain control and set boundaries; learn to say no.
  2. Have regular check-ins with yourself to notice your feelings.
  3. Practice self-care through hobbies, mindfulness, yoga, massage, being with people who give you energy, eating good food, and getting enough sleep.
  4. Share your feelings with others.
  5. Delegate responsibility.
  6. Experiment with putting yourself first!

Connie Zweig, writing on describes her awakening when she realized it was time to leave her profession as a therapist. She could not ignore the fact that she “didn’t want to do it anymore. My attention was moving away from work, and my heart was opening in other ways.” She had a strong sense that she should do less.

Who Am I Now?

After spending decades helping others, we might have fears of letting go of the self we’ve always known. We might feel less needed, less important, less secure, and more uncertain.

For me, this process is still incomplete. For the past two summers, I had been noticing that the flower beds at my local library were beautifully landscaped, but they were full of weeds. I was overjoyed to find an email address for the library gardeners. At the time, I had hurt my foot in a hiking mishap. At least I waited a few weeks until the foot healed before I sent my inquiry to join the group. To me, that’s progress!

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you feeling burnout in retirement? What’s causing this state of being? Do you have too many obligations? Are they all bringing you joy and fulfillment? Have you even considered your schedule?