February 2, 2017
This year, the National African American MSM Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS and Other Health Disparities met in Dallas, Texas, during the inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president. As our new commander-in-chief was being sworn in with no HIV policy in sight, over 500 black gay men were meeting to discuss the future of HIV prevention, treatment and care in our country as we move into unchartered territory. For many of us, this meeting was a necessary moment of self-care that allowed us as black gay, trans and queer people to be at peace with one another, knowing what the fight ahead is going to be. We all met together for the conference highlight, a session called "Convergence: Living and Working on the Front Lines."
From the moment the session started, I was in a place of fear and nerves. You see, the speaker, Yolo Akili Robinson, executive director of BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective), had asked if I would lend my voice to the presentation. As I sat in a room full of my peers, he began his presentation, talking about the intersections among HIV work, mental health and self-care, as well as working within a system and institutions that often fall short in protecting the sanity of their most loyal and dedicated employees. Then, my face and name flashed across the screen with a quote: "You burnout mentally, physically, spiritually, and at times never realize that the life needing saving may actually be your own."
As he read the quote, the room became completely silent. Then, it was filled with snaps and affirmations as the words began to resonate with everyone in the room and, with the spotlight on me, even I had to recognize how much the words had truly become my life.
I work for one of the older HIV service organizations in the country, which also happens to be the oldest and largest black gay organization: Us Helping Us People Into Living. I want to start this out by saying I love my job; I love this work, but at the current pace that I am going, self-care has become non-existent and organizational responsibility for that has gone out the window. I have been doing community work since I was 14 years old, which transferred into doing HIV-specific work just over two years ago, and from the moment I entered, the hats began piling up on my head. In a little over two years, I have served in no less than five positions that vary in difficulty and responsibility and are not even in the same field of expertise.
I have been a community health worker, grant manager, manager of young adult services, manager of YAS and counseling and testing, the accountant and now the interim CFO. The culture and structure in health care organizations is not unique, and many others in this field have similar stories of moving around in their organization, filling voids while being underpaid, overworked and, at times, present but not aware. Both small non-profits and big corporations across the health care continuum deal with this same issue of worker capacity versus client caseload, and fail to provide sufficient resources to ensure that their employees are properly prepared for their assigned work tasks. As Yolo explained, he was sent out with an "HIV 101, condoms, lube and 3MV training" with the goal of saving the world.
We are in the business of numbers, and without numbers we don't get funding. Our jobs are to get people tested, get them into treatment and monitor them throughout their treatment despite the time constraints of work-life balance. We are also in the business of being client centered, so there are numerous times when we as providers go above and beyond, even to our own detriment, to ensure total care for the people we serve.
Then you hit a wall called burnout. Burnout occurs when the work becomes detrimental to your own health and there is no space for the necessary care needed for healing. Burnout occurs often in this profession because there is no blueprint for what care looks like for the employee in a field that is so focused on what care looks like for the client. We are in the business of saving lives and ensuring that the epidemic continues to decrease. But, seeing our clients live and thrive becomes a hollow victory when we as employees are slowly dying underneath the work.
As Yolo explained, "drowning in the work" creates employees who are resentful of the work. This resentment causes us to hate the work we do and directly correlates to poor work performance. In addition to drowning in the work, we are also dating, partying and interacting in the same community as our clients, which is something that is rarely addressed for a full understanding of how to navigate that space. Such concerns are met with little support from organizations, as their missions, visions and objectives are so client centered that they never consider the people who are obligated to perform the work necessary to attain them. The notion of "it's your job" and "don't do that" is based in an ethical obligation rather than actual logic, leaving the employee the most affected by the lack of resources for support.
Although we may be the only thing that our clients have, we are neither saviors nor superheroes. We need to be supported by our agencies, not just financially, and even in that space, there is much room for improvement. Providers need to take heed and gauge the temperature of their employees to ensure that they are not experiencing burnout in their efforts to protect clients' mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. If these companies and agencies can close out the year recording a "profit," they can for sure start investing some funds into their most important product: their employees.
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