Preble Street was founded in the basement of the Preble Street Chapel in 1975. Their model was simple, built on social work principles of harm reduction and compassion toward Portland’s unsheltered, low- to no-income and food-insecure communities. It is now an agency that employs over 200 people, with multiple programs and facilities spanning Portland, Bangor and Lewiston.

For the past year I worked as a caseworker for one of their programs in Portland. While I found the work meaningful and loved working with my clients, I often felt that the organization wasn’t extending that same sense of compassion, empathy and respect to its own workers. I didn’t have adequate support from my supervisors as I struggled to find housing and connect our clients to social services amid the pandemic and in a rapidly gentrifying city. Our caseloads were high, and a shortage of caseworkers and social work staff both in our own and other outside agencies meant the workload felt at times insurmountable.

The current starting pay for a Preble Street caseworker is $16.30 an hour. For a 23-year-old who recently graduated from college, living in a city with a rapidly rising cost of rent and other living expenses, this did not feel like a livable wage. Indeed, my income and current savings balance qualified me for the same rent relief and other assistance programs I would help connect my clients to.

Preble Street is experiencing a plethora of open positions and turnover that won’t subside until it is able to address a fundamental issue facing the American workforce today: burnout. The psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who coined the term, defined it as the failure, weariness and exhaustion of an employee because of increased demands on energy, power and resources. The stress and demands of caseworkers with limited access to resources and support are prime ingredients for employee burnout.

During my time at Preble Street I was increasingly concerned that we were not discussing burnout and mental health. Universities like Tulane have been extensively studying burnout among social workers during the pandemic. When I brought these concerns to managers in my department, it felt like they were brushed aside. Ultimately I made the decision to leave the agency, feeling burned out and exhausted from having to put the same amount of energy advocating for myself and my colleagues as I did for my clients.

If Preble Street truly wants to make progress toward greater economic, social and racial justice, they need to address the burnout that is currently plaguing their ranks, along with making significant increases in the base pay for caseworkers and other entry-level positions. This increase should correlate with the rise in cost of living for the counties in which they live and work.

My recommendation to Preble Street is to hire a burnout consultant to conduct a burnout audit, which is a review by an independent person or entity to determine the degree to which current staff have been dealing with mental exhaustion or burnout. This review would culminate in a report and issue recommendations regarding what the agency could be doing to prevent burnout. This would go a long way toward strengthening its capacity to fulfill its important mission: to serve people experiencing poverty, to advocate for issues affecting the people it serves and to safeguard the well-being of the community.

The community of Preble Street, particularly its caseworkers and its clients, needs this now more than ever. It will only become increasingly harder for Preble Street to continue retaining and hiring qualified staff the longer they ignore the pleas from their staff regarding burnout.

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