Burnout and “compassion fatigue” have been identified among staff working at Ireland’s main educational and training programme for young students who drop out of secondary school.
In the Youthreach Employee Wellbeing Report, published on Tuesday, one in four Youthreach employees said they suffered from moderate levels of burnout, vicarious trauma, and moderate or high levels of “compassion fatigue”.
Those most at risk are employees with particularly high workloads who work over the weekend and during the school holidays.
Bernie Grummell, associate professor with Maynooth University and co-author of the report, said the survey highlighted the disparity between contracts for teachers and contracts for Youthreach co-ordinators and managers.
“Teacher contracts have clearly defined roles for time, pay and conditions but a lot of the work done by Youthreach co-ordinators is not specified in their contracts,” said Grummell.
“These [co-ordinator] positions need to be reviewed to recognise the diversity of the work they do and they need the equivalent level of pay, conditions and status to their colleagues in secondary education, and further education and training sectors,” she added.
Michael Kenny, a lecturer in Maynooth University’s department of adult and community education, said Youthreach services were “almost invisible” within the education sector yet they “break the education and poverty cycle and save lives”.
“Youthreach centres across Ireland are giving the most marginalised students a second chance,” said Kenny. In a forward to the report, Prof Tom Collins, former interim president of Maynooth University, described the services as an “institutionally unloved initiative”.
Almost 7,000 students attend the 112 Youthreach centres – which are managed by education and training boards – throughout Ireland, according to figures from 2020.
Grummell said the report also highlighted the extremely positive work that Youthreach staff do to build positive relationships with students.
“They rebuild confidence with students who have been damaged by life and schooling. After two years at Youthreach, these students go on to education or employment and partake in society with self-confidence,” she said.
The ageing profile of Youthreach employees was another issue identified in the report. Three out of four employees who did the online survey said they were unsure if they would be working in the sector in five years. About one-third of all respondents was over 40 and had been working for Youthreach for more than 10 years.
When asked about the impact of the pandemic on the learning environment, survey respondents said Covid-19 regulations increased administrative tasks, taking time away from teaching. Youthreach employees – like secondary schoolteachers – also highlighted the challenges of responding to the increased need among students while managing heavier workloads and upskilling for delivering online modules.
Student disengagement was also an issue in Youthreach centres during the pandemic.
Staff highlighted the high levels of student anxiety and mental health issues during Covid-19, including more “substance abuse, behavioural issues and over-reliance on their phones”. Many felt that the wellbeing supports offered to staff by their employers weren’t sufficient at the time.