CD Worker Burnout: Does the ABCD Approach decrease this?

5 years ago
3 posts

Hi there!

This might be a little left of centre, but I am currently writing an essay for my Masters on how the inherent positivity of the ABCD approach might mitigate CD worker burnout. So I am wondering if this wonderful community could share any information or articles/journals/texts on CD worker burnout - even better if you know of any resources that talk about ABCD improving CD worker retention.

I am also keen to hear personal reflections regarding this argument!

Thanks in advance!

updated by @siomarsh: 05/20/17 01:33:31AM
Alan Blackshaw
Alan Blackshaw
5 years ago
4 posts

An interesting position. However, I think you are asking the wrong question. Let me elaborate. ABCD attracts people who are passionate and dedicated to strengths based place making. Let's face it ABCD is an incredibly rewarding approach in community building. However, the passion, the reward and the positive nature of ABCD doesn't insulate the worker from the same tensions that lead to burnout.

From my experience, both personal and in observing others, the answer really lies in a couple of other contributing factors. First, there is the person's own awareness of the tensions, the personal boundaries they need to put in place ie self care. This is the same professional strength required in all community based work. A worker's passion and enthusiasm for connected community and social change can sometimes blind them to the need to care for themselves. Secondly, there is the structure of the organisation they work for. If it understands the work of community development and is supportive of workers then this will assist.

I've written a short piece in LinkedIn about self care:  that may be of interest.

The question really to ask is what contributes to sustaining the community development worker operating from an ABCD perspective?

Sheryl Johnson
Sheryl Johnson
5 years ago
9 posts

I would like to offer an alternate opinion to the question of whether asset-based work reduces worker burn-out based on my own experience with case management/direct service approach and community-based approaches.  If correctly implemented, I do believe that asset-based approaches can increase the positive contributions of the worker and reduce burnout. I will share the reasons in the following paragraphs to offer some clarity on my own past experiences which may be different from that of other workers. 

Traditional case management and direct services provision have a power component - a “knowledge” worker or series of them, paired with a client/consumer. These approaches are often shaped around a presenting life problem/needed service. The client is often under stress and at a disadvantage at the point-in-time they are receiving services.  These services are most often time-limited rather than an ongoing process of understanding between the worker and consumer of services.

The worker has no knowledge of client before needing services so is introduced to them at a difficult point in their life and may have challenges ascertaining their strengths which are masked by the crisis period.  Workers sometimes also have little concept of what life in the communities their clients come from is like which can create a barrier to understanding on both sides of the relationship. 

The client will often project/perceive that worker has no stressors because of their nice office, professional demeanor, or by other perception.  “It doesn't really matter” to my worker is in many cases the perception. There is little interrelation or interdependence. Once a client has received services they may never see their worker again.

That said, I believe that case management and direct services can be done with care and can also provide a much needed assistance. These approaches may intensify in their impact when provided from a community-centered and asset-based approach if the service consumer is wishing to remain connected to or get to know their community. [outside services are helpful if a person is wishing to make a new start for reasons of safety or to create a new beginning]

Asset-based work is a quite different approach and can be used in both a micro-community such as a non-profit office or in a larger neighborhood or community.  The approach includes both formal knowledge workers within the community, as well as community leaders and community members.  Each person’s role is different, but from a strength’s perspective, each person involved holds a piece of the total sum of knowledge that makes each community or sub-community work effectively together. In asset-based community work, there is an acknowledgement that both the community members and community worker hold power that can create a synergy to catalyze change in the setting.  Asset-based methodology is participatory, with community members and workers moving on different projects and knowledge sets that contribute to the health of the entire community and that suit their skill set or teach them a new skill. There can also be a high level of interdependence and a high level of reciprocity because of the understanding the the gifts, talents and leveraging ability of ALL create the final result.

Here are the reasons that I believe that asset-based work can be helpful in reducing burnout:

People in their communities often have, or can work together to create/locate, the solutions to their challenges. [The worker can provide resources, but the community builds or advises on the workable solution that is a best fit in their community.] 

Healthy and connected communities have natural networks of information sharing that build their community knowledge base and disburses messages in ways that reach their larger community. [Community members/leaders spread the word about programs and services available or can lead/contribute skills to programs in their areas of knowledge.] 

Community work can be pro-active and project-centered, rather than problem-based. It is a different way of approaching the issues communities face that is focused in a way that creates positives in otherwise difficult situations.

Community members and workers work in partnership to create solutions with reciprocity and shared communication. [worker presumably leverages their power toward healthy partnerships]

For a community worker and community members, longevity within a community creates a relationship that is based on trust and mutual understanding, as well as increasing the understanding of the issues that communities and individuals are facing. [All parties benefit from relationships based on trust and deeper understanding which creates programs, resources and projects better tailored to the need in each community]

Community members and community workers in partnership and over time, come to understand a more natural range of emotions in one another that include; excited, frustrated, angry, worried, sick or upset. Over time, the community members can respond to the worker and the worker can respond to community members in these fluctuations with an understanding of the full-spectrum of emotions. This also makes it easier for the worker to identify the issues of concern with community members or vice versa.  (i.e. this person is usually happy, but today they seem very agitated, which can prompt a caring question from the worker or community member, sometimes pre-empting major crises)

Shared successes and empowerments create a healthier space for both the worker and community member. 

Skills of community members increase over time which creates more opportunities for communities to meet their own needs. The result can include community events, new jobs or businesses, and social networks based on shared interests. [Thereby increasing the overall health and reducing the social isolation in the community the worker is trying to assist.]

Note: This definitively presumes a strengths and asset-based approach, worker longevity in the community to build trust and achieve shared successes, and relies heavily on the belief that community members have wisdom and knowledge that already exists within their community.  

5 years ago
3 posts

Thank you both for these incredibly enlightening and well thought out responses - you have definitely helped me form a stronger and broader argument for this essay! 

updated by @siomarsh: 05/26/17 09:47:43PM
John Hamerlinck
John Hamerlinck
5 years ago
47 posts

I wonder if it might be useful to think about effective ABCD as practice that is not professionalized at its core. For me, the key to successful ABCD is the emergence of shared leadership by people who are doing the work because they are passionate stakeholders, not because they are getting paid by an NGO, or government agency to implement a policy, project, or program.

Distributing the workload, or the responsibilities of paid staff across a group of community volunteers does not constitute ABCD. Shared leadership, shared risk, and placing some trust in the wisdom of well-informed amateurs might be the best way to keep anyone from getting burned out.

Sheryl Johnson
Sheryl Johnson
5 years ago
9 posts

I agree, the idea of professionalizing an asset-based approach that is founded in the uniqueness of the individuals within any community feels improbable.  Yet in the current system, I see non-profits as stakeholders who are essential "in the gap" as they provide needed tools, resources, space that are sometimes otherwise unavailable at present.  Blended approaches are possible, if not purist and help in the gap space.  

Non-profit employees should not “use” community members to lighten their workload.  However, in a neighborhood setting there are skillful and ethical ways to work with community members that benefit the community and give opportunities for shared leadership and community member recognition.

For example, I worked with new refugees who were learning a new country. While adjusting, those with English would use their interpretation skills to provide programs in the multi-lingual community (at a time approximately ten dominant and up to thirty small linguistic groupings) in exchange for small compensation of money or donated gift cards. Shortly thereafter, many would get a short-term professional training as interpreters and move on to roles in local schools, hospitals, and care agencies with a tiny bit of experience under their belt to list on a resume, a reference if needed, and a higher-paying role than they might have otherwise found. The non-prof budget would not have been able to account for a higher-paid interpreter in so many languages and the community member would gain skills and useful information. While it is not asset-based approach arising fully organically from within the community, this is a way of moving a community-based non-profit toward asset-based perspectives in a win-win situation.  Most importantly community members would also gain new knowledge that they would then disseminate in their communities rather than the non-profit being the sole “keeper” of the knowledge, thereby creating community learning bank.  A completely shared non-profit/small community partnership that would not have been possible for either without both parties taking on a shared leadership role.  

5 years ago
3 posts

Hi everyone! Thank you again for all of your reflections and commentary. It has been very enlightening! Here is my final essay which you are welcome to read if you wish. It is 2,500 words so some points had to be cut short sadly, and some important areas were also omitted for space. Just a side note: I am very self conscious posting this so please be kind!

TOPIC: In light of your study in this unit identify some of the major challenges for community development work today? How is it possible to address or manage such challenges?

Saviour-complexes, power imbalance and burning out. Is Asset Based Community Development the answer?

The development sector experiences, to varying degrees, a higher level of worker burnout than other industries. This could be one of the greatest challenges facing community development, a practice which requires long-term, consistent and holistic practice – something which is difficult to deliver without ongoing staff.  Most workers who leave community development cite work pressure stress as a strong motivating factor, but what is causing this intense stress and how can it be mitigated? This essay will propose that the needs/deficit-based approach to community development exacerbates work pressure stress due to the power imbalance it creates, whereby the worker feels directly responsible for an individual or community in crisis. Conversely, the Asset Based Community Development (henceforth ABCD) approach acknowledges and promotes the power inherent in both the individual or community and the worker to collaborate to solve the concern at hand. Embodying the ABCD role of a “fellow traveller” (Kenny 2006, p. 425) will decrease the pressure of misplaced responsibility and increase worker retention.

Problematic power structures within community development

Employee turnover in the community development sector is high with most workplaces experiencing up to 30 per cent turnover per annum (InSync Surveys 2014, p. 3), this is well above the Australian average of 16 per cent (AHRI 2015, p. 5). This creates a situation whereby organisations experience decreased efficiency and effectiveness, as well as decreased ability to consistently and holistically cater to clients. As well as impacting on services and outcomes, high employee turnover in community development organisations consumes already stretched human and financial resources. But what is causing this worker exodus?

InSync Surveys (2014) profiled exiting community development employees and found that work pressure stress is cited as one of the top three motivating factors for leaving a job (p. 4). InSync Surveys highlights that this is not something referenced by workers in any other sector. What is it about the current community development context that exacerbates work pressure stress more than any other industry?

One answer to this question could be discursive frictions present in current needs-based community development approaches. Traditional needs-based roles are characterized by case management and direct service provision; a worker or series of them, paired with a client/consumer to provide a service. This has an inherent power structure which, without due process and reflection, can become problematic. The community worker, due to their specialized training or education, possesses knowledge, skills and language that can be highly influential or suggestive to the person or community they are working with (Ife & Tesoriero 2006, p. 335). As explained by Hanson & Ogunade (2016, p. 43), power is “defined simply as the ability to influence or impact the actions of others”. These needs-focused roles are in the perfect position to inadvertently co-opt the voice of those they are tasked to serve, thereby further disempowering their clients. This often happens when the worker makes assumptions of the people or person they are aiming to serve. Even the language ‘to serve’ has within it insinuations of power; one side has the power to give, the other side needs help to be given. They are not meeting as equals but as service provider and consumer, which perpetuates neo-liberal and managerialist approaches to community development (Kenny 2006, p. 426).

Within this dichotomy is the demand that the worker will provide the services needed to help that individual overcome their current concern or crisis. This role alone is what stands between the client and their suffering. How can the person fulfilling that role not experience high levels of work pressure stress? The power structures have imbued them with the belief that they have the power to save or inadvertently harm someone’s life. The total result of this approach is that the person or community feel disempowered and dependent (Gloucester Partnership 2013, p. 6), and conversely, the worker feels inescapably depended upon, increasing the work pressure stress.

“We just assume that the mission is more important than our personal needs.” (Bryan quoted in Shields 1991, as cited in Kenny 2006, p. 418)

Starting with the perception that someone is existing at a deficit, or requires saving, means that you are working with the assumption that “everybody we’re serving is half-empty” (Michelle Obama as cited in Gloucester Partnership 2013, p. 7). This creates a power imbalance where we, the one’s with glasses half-full, are stronger and better equipped to help others. This creates functionalist assumptions about a person’s aptitude but also places undue pressure on the worker as it is their responsibility and duty to help this individual. Freire explains that we rationalise this guilt through paternalistic treatment of our clients (Freire 1990, p. 33). By way of example, to paraphrase Mansfield (2000, p. 60), once a person presents for help at a needs-based organisation, they cease to be an individual, but rather an object of study and analysis; what caused you to be in this situation? What personality traits predispose you to hardship? What cultural factors have created your predicament? This type of “needs talk” (Kenny 2006, p. 181) creates an arena through which political power is constructed and applied. The Marmot Review (as cited in Gloucester Partnership 2013, p.12) reported that this type of rhetoric has been an ongoing frustration for communities as professionals use it to continually exert their power to control the types of issues that could be discussed, excluding some communities and stereotyping others.

“Here, the ‘individual’ is not free and autonomous, but the focal point of larger forces, analysed by systems of knowledge in what they claim is an impartial quest for truth.” – (Mansfield 2000, p. 60)

In this situation of unequal power, it is near impossible to rebalance the scales without further deepening the divide. As Freire (1990, pp. 39-40) explains, any attempt to soften power within an oppressor/oppressed interface will almost always manifest itself as a form of false generosity which only serves the oppressor – in this case being the development worker.  We heard reference to that earlier by Bryan (quoted in Shields 1991, as cited in Kenny 2006, p. 418) who graciously gave up their personal needs for the mission at hand.

In addition to this, there is little interrelation or interdependence of the client/service relationship. Once a client has received services, they may never see their worker again, further compounding work pressure stress and dissatisfaction as the worker rarely experiences a conclusion or a physical outcome of their work.

How can the ‘glass half-full’ approach of Asset Based Community Development improve worker retention?

“Job fulfilment is inextricably linked to being empowered and supported to genuinely help disadvantaged clients. A constructive culture assists in delivering better results for clients which in turn reinforces job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation.” (InSync Surveys 2014, p. 3)

The above quote from InSync Surveys is their definition, based on interview data, of a successful working situation in the development sector which, will in turn, experience low worker turnover. The emphasis on a constructive culture is particularly pertinent when we talk about the impact that an ABCD approach has on workplace wellbeing. Asset-based work defines the community and the development workers as “fellow traveller(s)” (Kenny 2006, p. 425) who have a shared responsibility, mission and aim. This is in stark contrast to the needs-based model that we have discussed previously which starts with a question on what is lacking and what needs supplementing or replacing, rather than what strengths are already present. As S. Johnson (personal communication, 26 May 2017) explains, the flipping of the needs-based approach results in a sense of positivity:

“Community work can be pro-active and project-centred, rather than problem-based. It is a different way of approaching the issues communities face that is focused in a way that creates positives in otherwise difficult situations.”

Within this perspective, there is an acceptance and acknowledgement of power on both sides of the divide. Each person’s role is different, but each holds a piece of the total sum of knowledge that makes each community or sub-community work effectively together. This union and its shared power can construct a synergy to catalyse real change. With this comes a feeling of shared purpose and therefore shared labour as working with people as friends, acquaintances or collaborators is less stressful than dealing with bureaucracies and often yields quicker outcomes (Field 2008, pp. 2-3).

Asset-based methodology is participatory by nature, with community members and workers collaborating on different projects and utilising diverse knowledge sets that contribute to the health of the entire community. Freire would see this collaborative approach as indicative of “co-intentional” (Freire 1990, p. 56) practice, which he sees as the only way to create revolutionary change in an oppressor/oppressed relationship:

“In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation, but committed involvement.” - (Freire 1990, p. 56)

By applying ABCD, workers are actively committing themselves to sharing the power of their positions and the projects. If a community worker is seen as a member of the community, and that the two are inextricably linked, then the power paradox is resolved (Ife & Tesoriero 2006, p. 336). To provide an example of how projects can be mutually enhanced by a member of the community’s unique knowledge set, coupled with organisational support, community development worker S. Johnson used a current example from their work with refugees who had comprehension skills in English:

“…Those (refugees) with English (skills) would use their interpretation skills to provide programs in the multi-lingual community ... Shortly thereafter, many would get… professional training (from S. Johnson’s organisation) as interpreters and move on to roles in local schools, hospitals, and care agencies... The non-prof (sic) budget would not have been able to account for a higher-paid interpreter in so many languages and the community member would gain skills” - (S. Johnson personal communication, 26 May 2017).

This quote highlights how one organisation collaborated with community members to resolve a need in a mutually inclusive and beneficial way. The outcome for both the worker and the community is a sense of achievement by providing a positive solution to a pressing community need and a new set of skills that will continue to benefit the individual and community at large.

But how does this improve worker wellbeing and subsequently retention? The old saying that a shared load is a lighter one seems to be highly applicable in this instance. Two current development workers; S. Johnson and J. Hamerlinck highlight the empowerment of sharing leadership and successes as being highly important to the maintenance of a healthy workforce and decreasing work pressure stress:

“Shared successes and empowerments create a healthier space for both the worker and community member.” - (S. Johnson personal communication, 26 May 2017).

 “For me, the key to successful ABCD is the emergence of shared leadership by people who are doing the work because they are passionate stakeholders, not because they are getting paid by an NGO, or government agency to implement a policy, project, or program… Shared leadership, shared risk, and placing some trust in the wisdom of well-informed amateurs might be the best way to keep anyone from getting burned out.” - J. Hamerlinck (personal communication, 31 May 2017)

As these two practitioners have highlighted, collaboration is deeply important to them and the longevity of their work. A feeling of connection to both the community and the issue at hand is essential to the ABCD model but also to ensure that the power remains within the community itself and not held by external individuals (Ife & Tesoriero 2006, p. 335). It’s also a clear example of how wellbeing is fostered through social capital, higher levels of which has been linked to positive health outcomes and resilience (Gloucester Partnership 2013, p. 11).

According to ‘The Six Essentials of Workplace Positivity’ (Cabrera 2012), a healthy and happy workplace needs; positive thinking, positive relationships, realizing potential through strengths, empowerment to do your job well, meaning and wellbeing. By starting with the positives, or assets, as you would with the ABCD approach, you are better equipped to achieve these ‘essentials’ and to therefore create workplaces that are characterised by strong human connections, decreased stress, ease of work, accessible and visible outcomes. All of which would make anyone’s job more enjoyable and satisfying.


The burden or work pressure stress is intense within the needs-based community of the development sector, but is borne of inaccurate and unsustainable power structures which make the worker feel responsible for the wellbeing of the person or community they are tasked with serving. This approach is not only exacerbating stress and worker turnover, it is also impeding robust development work from taking place. In addition to this, starting with a deficit, is blocking workers from accessing the social capital inherent in a collaborative approach which would, in turn, give them more tangible evidence of their work in action.

If the development world is to create a situation where high worker retention is the norm, development organisations would be best advised to take a leaf from the ABCD approach and begin sharing the power with those they work with and for. Relinquishing this power may be uncomfortable at first but will, in the long-run, decrease the work pressure burden experienced by workers as they will have located their own liberation as bound up with those that they are working with (Watson 1980, publication unknown). This understanding will encourage practitioners to work side-by-side to create mutually beneficial and long-term outcomes.



AHRI, 2015. HR: Pulse. AHRI Pulse Survey - Turnover and Retention, Melbourne. [PDF], viewed 21 May 2017.

Cabrera, EF 2012, 'The Six Essentials of Workplace Positivity', People & Strategy, 35, 1, pp. 50-60, Health Business Elite, EBSCOhost, viewed 2 June 2017.

Field, J 2008, Social Capital, Taylor and Francis, London. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. Viewed 1 June 2017.

Freire, P, 1990, Pedagogy of the oppressed, Continuum, New York, pp. 19-56 

 Gloucester Partnership (2013), A glass half-full: how an asset approach can improve community health and well-being. [PDF] viewed 21 May 2017, <,_City_Plan/Thematic_Groups/ABCD.aspx> Viewed 21 May 2017.

Hanson, C, & Ogunade, A 2016, 'Caught up in Power', Gateways: International Journal of Community Research & Engagement, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 41-57. [PDF] viewed 27 May 2017: 10.5130/ijcre.v9i1.4729.

Ife, J. and Tesoriero, F., 2006. Community development. 3rd ed. Frenchs Forest, N.S.W.: Pearson Education.

InSync Surveys (2014), Employee retention in community services organisations, [PDF],, viewed 21 May 2017.

Kenny, S., 2006. Developing communities for the future. 4th ed. Melbourne: Engage Learning Australia.

Mansfield, N 2000, ‘Foucault: The subject and power’, in N Mansfield (ed.), Subjectivity: Theories of the self from Freud to Haraway, New York University Press, New York, pp. 51–65.

Watson, L. 1980, publication unknown

Dee Brooks
Dee Brooks
5 years ago
97 posts

What a great thread! Sorry I didn't see it sooner!

I've been an ABCD practitioner for 20 years (argh, I'm old!) and more recently, as an Intentional Nomad, I've been living the principles of ABCD in an everyday way for 2 years now. This comes with a lot of reflection on how to stay tapped into my networks, create a sense of belonging wherever I am in the world and to be kind to myself!

Your paper was an affirming read, as were the comments from other members!

Thank you for sharing it, even if you were nervous!

Sheryl Johnson
Sheryl Johnson
5 years ago
9 posts
Thanks for sharing. One correction I would like to make is that at my small staffed neighborhood site interpreter training was not something we had the capacity to provide! After resettling there were other local agencies that provided training. Cheers to all having the opportunity to develop their assets!