Many funeral directors see their role as serving a greater purpose, some even iterating a modified proverb known as the Peter Parker principle, "With great responsibility comes great reward." However, a funeral director's occupation requires more than physical labor and a particular skill set. It requires "superpowers" to take on the emotional labor of listening to families who have experienced loss while also helping them plan funeral services for their loved ones who have passed.
After listening to Nancy Weil, a guest contributor for NFDA, share how the COVID-19 pandemic had created an upheaval in funeral homes' normal rhythms, I was inspired to write an article about recognizing the signs of burnout. I know you will understand from your own experiences how the pandemic may have encumbered your business's routine responsibilities with additional protocols that impacted the emotional and mental health of you and your staff.
Facing Unprecedented Challenges Builds Stress
In 2020 funeral directors were forced to make many changes in their routines, from adopting stricter protocols for protecting workers to learning new regulations for cremation and burial. Many even transitioning in-person memorial services to one hundred percent virtually online. Facing these challenges takes a hefty emotional toll. Understand, first and foremost, it is okay to acknowledge that your line of work is difficult and that it's affecting you in ways which at times, are difficult to manage.
Behavioral health specialists help individuals recognize the signs of stress, identify the root cause, and identify a means by which to lessen the impact on one's health and well-being. Having a strategy to cope is essential towards maintaining the mental health of staff and the funeral home environment.
Recognizing Stressors and Choosing Healthy Ways to Cope
Stressors for some include the almost daily routine of figuring out how to safely provide funeral services in line with ever-changing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. For others, it's the pressure of managing new technical skills, for instance, those required to deliver virtual video generated services. Still, others feel the pressure always to be "on" as COVID spotlights how society manages the virus's victims. Long hours, unpredictable workloads, and the emotional demands of the planning, arrangement, embalming, and cremation processes build, forces us into a position where we feel "compassion fatigue."
Yes, even seemingly basic responses to others, such as compassion, sympathy, and empathy, can be fatiguing. This feeling is normal. As one funeral industry professional told Vice News, "It wasn't the dead causing her anxiety—it was the living." Even so, experiencing this type of fatigue can be a sign of professional burnout and may grow worse over time without a robust plan for managing your mental health in a supportive and healthy way.
Signs Of Burnout
We've all heard the term "burnout," but what does this mean in a professional context? How do you know if you're experiencing burnout rather than just a bad day?
Burnout is not a medical condition. It generally emerges in response to prolonged workplace stress. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed." Burnout, if left untreated, can lead to acute and long-term consequences to physical and mental health—both of which can disrupt your ability to work, maintain healthy relationships, and adequately attend to your day-to-day responsibilities.
Signs of burnout can include:
- Low energy
- Feeling mentally detached from your work
- Feeling negative or cynical about your work
- Reduced efficacy at work (e.g. unable to keep up, procrastination)
- Loss of motivation
- Feeling hopeless or helpless
- Changes in appetite or sleep
- Sense of loneliness
- Isolating from others, including spouses, friends, and family
- Headaches and muscle pain
Signs of burnout vary from person to person, and you don't have to experience all of the common signs and symptoms of burnout
to be verifiably burned out from your job. Physical and psychological symptoms can manifest in people in different ways.
Managing Mental Health
Self-care is a crucial aspect of maintaining mental health. Contrary to popular belief, self-care does not solely refer to activities associated with consumerism, such as going to a spa or shopping. At its core, self-care refers to the necessary act of taking care of oneself. In day-to-day life, this can include making sure you're eating enough, drinking enough water, and taking permitted breaks to give yourself the well-deserved space to breathe, acknowledging your stress, and taking steps to recharge.
Managing mental health also requires more than what you can give yourself. Self-care is one of several strategies you can utilize to manage your sense of mental well-being and prevent burnout. Additional methods for maintaining good mental health might include:
- Reach out to your support system: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or spouse. Communicate with them. They care about you and will appreciate the opportunity to provide support.
- Talk to a professional: Don't face these challenges alone. Talking to a therapist or grief counselor and allows you to unload the emotional burden of your work. They'll teach how to process your emotions in a healthy and productive way.
- Get moving: Going for a walk, jog, or engage in other forms of joyful movement. These activities boost endorphins associated with pleasure, relaxation, and a sense of well-being.
- Be honest with yourself: Repressing your emotions can lead to an unsupportive buildup of stress, anxiety, and sadness. Be honest with yourself about how you're feeling and its impact on your daily life. This is an important step towards effectively managing mental health during and after work hours.
- Call on pandemic resources that help you deal with the added stress of being a funeral director during such a difficult stage in history.
Above all, make mental health a priority. We need food and water to survive - the basics of physical wellbeing – but equally as important is mental wellness. Acknowledging the emotional toll that comes with your work and effectively utilizing strategies to manage difficulties as they arise is a sign of strength and resilience.
If you or someone you know may be using unsupportive strategies to manage stress, such as increased alcohol consumption, drug use, or unusual, isolating behavior; seek a medical professional's advice immediately.
About the Author
McKenna Schueler is a content specialist for the behavioral health company Ark Behavioral Health, which owns and operates a network of substance abuse treatment centers in Massachusetts. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Psychology. From where she lives in Tampa, Florida, McKenna also contributes local news coverage as an independent journalist. For more information about Ark Behavioral Health, visit arkbh.com