Burnout in Sign Language Interpreting

  • June 25, 2018

With a decade in interpreting and running an agency (give or take a few years on both), I’ve developed a sense for the signs of burnout both in myself and in others in this field. Interpreting is hard. Scheduling services for consumers is hard. So much of what we do in this field relies on a high level of accuracy and a low tolerance for mistakes; this can lead to burnout. We have to manage our work and our expectations of ourselves.

The warning signs:

  • Irritability, Cynicism, Antagonism, Apathy
    • These emotional changes have been the best predictor of burnout in my experience. When an otherwise reasonable, polite, caring person is increasingly sensitive to real or perceived insults, begins picking fights with me or coworkers, shows increased pessimism, or decreased concern for issues that they used to care about, I pay attention. When we see this at Rose, we’ve learned to take action with staff and reach out to contractors.
  • Forgetfulness, mistakes in work that previously was done well
    • While this is an issue of quality control on the surface, it’s also a great clue that someone is “overdone.” Learning new tasks or content can be difficult, but if previously mastered content is now being done incorrectly it could mean there’s a problem. Forgetfulness is also a symptom of stress or fatigue that should be addressed.
  • Suddenly taking on much or much less work than is typically taken
    • When we see a drop off in accepted work, we can assume you’re already taking steps to help yourself. Good for you! When I see you taking more work than usual or more than seems doable in a given period of time to allow for rest, meals, or fun activities we pay attention. In that situation, my concern is that you’re having a hard time saying no. You’re allowed to say no and you should. If you’re running at a deficit, tell us, your kids, your partner, and your friends no.
  • Assuming inappropriate “ownership” of appointments or tasks
    • I usually see this right before someone self destructs. They attempt to take over all appointments or work with a particular task or consumer, thinking they’re the only one who can do it right (this is rarely the case and can really interfere in effective, empowering operations). When those tasks or appointments are assigned to someone else, I have seen responses of outright anger, suspicion, and claims of persecution… these responses aren’t successful in a professional setting.
  • Frequent schedule adjustments needed
    • If you need to adjust time on a shift or appointment you’ve committed to more than once or twice a quarter, something is wrong with your schedule. In my experience it usually means that that person is trying to do too much with too little time. They’re trying to jam appointments back to back, not allowing for traffic problems or for adequate time before work begins to chat with consumers or catch up on the daily work. This is related somewhat to not being able to say no, but deserves to be fleshed out on its own. One small, 10 minute problem that you have no control over (traffic jam, sudden case of diarrhea, etc.) suddenly becomes a big problem (for you, consumers, and the office) when you don’t allow for “recovery” time in your schedule.

When I see one or some of these signs with an interpreter or a member of the admin team, I pay attention. I typically do a pretty good job of hiring/contracting people who have strong interpersonal and professional skills, so when these fundamental skills falter it shouldn’t be ignored. With staff, our sick time policy is a big help as well as being able to talk honestly about the demands we’re facing. With contractors, we may not be as close but we do have the talk at whatever level is comfortable. We can’t live or serve well if we’re not taking care of ourselves.

Go play, read a book, talk to a professional. Counseling isn’t just for consumers.



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