Professionals in early intervention sector need peer and organisational support to tackle burnout

Experts in the early intervention sector said that peer and organisational support for those who experience burnout can help those affected cope. PHOTO: ST FILE
Miss Dione Ng, who began her journey as an early intervention teacher three years ago, said the stress and demands of the job have caused her to feel burnt-out at times. ST PHOTO: LEE JIA WEN

SINGAPORE- Half of professionals surveyed in a poll on working with special needs children viewed burning out quickly as a key challenge.

While the problem is common, experts in the early intervention sector told The Straits Times that it does not usually lead to professionals leaving. Peer and organisational support can help those affected cope with it, they said.

A survey commissioned by the Lien Foundation and released on Tuesday (Apr 24) showed that 51 per cent of the 423 professionals surveyed felt that burning out quickly was one of the key problems they faced.

About 44 per cent of them said salaries and benefits were unattractive, while 34 per cent pointed to a shortage of manpower as a key challenge, according to the survey.

Teachers, social workers and veterans in the sector that cares for children under six with developmental or special needs said that the work is taxing both physically and emotionally.

For Miss Dione Ng, a 25-year-old teacher at AWWA Early Intervention Centre, the stress and demands of the job have definitely caused her to feel burnt-out occasionally.

"It's complex, the things we deal with. Not only do we have to handle the children with different disabilities and needs, we also need to deal with their parents or caregivers and coach them on strategies that suit their children."

"It can take some time for the children to change their behaviour or for us to see improvements and that can become quite frustrating."

She has been in the sector for three years and works with children with physical conditions like cerebral palsy and developmental delays in areas like speech and motor skills.

Ms Melissa Yeo, 28, head of teaching at Thye Hua Kwan (THK) Early Intervention Programme for Infants and Children (EIPIC) Centre, has been in the industry for nine years.

She said:"These children need a lot of individualised attention at their eye level which causes physical strain on teachers. Sometimes teachers also have to manage tantrums.

"There is always more that we can do for (them) and it is hard to draw the line. Burnout happens when the work life balance is strained."

Senior social worker Junaidah Baharawi, 42, said another reason for burnout could be forgetting to self-care.

"In the job of caring for others, we might sometimes forget to take care of ourselves. So it's good to be aware of when you're feeling tired," said Ms Junaidah, who works at SPD, a voluntary welfare organisation that helps people with disabilities.

She believes support from colleagues is crucial. "For the social workers under me, I encourage them to talk and share about their challenges."

Early intervention centres and organisations have measures in place to help their staff prevent or deal with burnout. For example, the SPD offers employees flexible working arrangements and when feasible, also allows them to take no-pay leave to rest and rejuvenate, said executive director Abhimanyau Pal.

Supervision and case discussions are also held regularly to provide professional and peer support.

Assistant director of THK EIPIC Centre Audrey De Cruz said because the job requirements are stressful, it is important that staff members have a listening ear.

Her organisation has welfare-centred policies which, for example, allow employees to work from home on days when there are no classes.

Ms De Cruz added that support from the Ministry of Social and Family Development is key. "We are reassured whenever they review current processes and every effort they make to look into how staff are remunerated appropriately in our sector is cherished."

Mrs June Tham, a veteran in the special needs field, said that most people join the sector because of passion, but for them to stay, there must be initiatives to train and support them .

"Of course we want the right people in the job. However they also need the right support and sufficient manpower.

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