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Transferring Our Energy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sarah Sweeney
June 5, 2021

During a recent mentoring session I was asked how I protect myself from burnout as a professional in the field and I often pause, thinking about what an interesting dynamic burnout has become. It is quite simple to become overwhelmed with the work we do each day and all the tasks we have to navigate as public administrators. We can spend our whole careers developing the skills we need to protect ourselves from burning out, when really we must cultivate the ability to divert our energy into the strength and vitality required for sustained physical and mental activity. Burnout is a very sensitive topic and can be difficult to identify, especially when we are used to working long hours and days to get through the project, rather than leaving when the day is done. It can be difficult to admit defeat as professionals, and to claim weakness in any part of who we are in our jobs is the worst part of any humiliation. However, in order to call ourselves leaders in our communities, we must humble ourselves and attest to our experiences in burning out, in order to share our experiences with those we serve.

To consider what it means to be a leader we must understand the importance of knowing the direction we are heading in and how to best bring along our teams to develop their skills, and acknowledge the people we are leading to be sure they are also confident in the services they provide. Defining burnout as a leader can be difficult since it involves being honest with ourselves and understanding the impact burnout has on our career and personal lives as public administrators. Burnout can sneak up on us, especially when we are going about our days and living life as usual, leading our teams and groups as we see fit to meet the business need. Being a leader means that we do not necessarily have control over ourselves, but rather how we best react to these situations, knowing that it is okay not to have all the answers. We should be able to admit when we are wrong and to say very clearly that we do not have all the answers, and to instead say, “Let me find out for you,” so that our staff and teams understand that we are humble enough to admit defeat.

Developing our identity as leaders and mentors means that we are always evolving, growing and learning what it means to be in control, and it is only through this point that we can fully understand the complexities of what it means to be a leader in today’s world. To be able to mentor someone means that you have a unique opportunity to provide feedback, support and engagement around the field and practice, while passing along wisdom and knowledge. When asked about my own experience, I was honest about how often I’ve moved around in my positions and the reasons behind my transitions, which have always been focused around professional development. While I hold both a social work degree and a public administration degree, both have significant risks of burning a person out, and so we must remain diligent in our ability to identify the risks. Working with both governments and the public can be a very personal and personable experience, and as community leaders it is our duty to be responsive to ourselves and our constituents.

Burnout comes from expending energy to avoid a situation that has brought out undue stress, which takes energy that we do not have in our stores. To quote a dear friend during conversation, “Energy can’t be destroyed or created, only transferred, which is dependent on someone’s surroundings. It transfers between individuals.” Through our relationship with our staff and colleagues in the field, we can easily transfer our negative energy to those we work with, so it is even more important to build up our strengths and personal abilities to be strong communicators and public administrators. Positive energy could potentially create positive outcomes in our relationships with our staff, colleagues and customers moving forward.


Author: Sarah Sweeney is a professional social worker and public administrator in Washington State. She may be contacted at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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