Looking after others can be mentally and physically challenging, so it’s important that you recognise your limitations and avoid burnout, says Jo Knowsley

From the age of seven Jess Baker looked after her mother, who was not physically ill but suffered from depression and violent mood swings. Baker felt ‘responsible’ for her mother’s needs, and tirelessly worked to pacify her by fulfilling her relentless demands.

‘She had narcissistic tendencies and needed me to do things for her to relieve her depression,’ says Baker today, remembering her unhappy childhood with her single parent. ‘I felt, as children often do, that I was responsible for her emotions – that I needed to do things for her that would make her feel better.

‘Along with her demands she often used to tell me: “There are givers and takers in this world, Jessie. Don’t be a taker!” The last four words were louder, like a threat. She spat out her demands for service.’

Without knowing it, Baker was a victim of ‘super-helper syndrome’, a term she coined herself. Her early childhood experiences led Baker to a career in the NHS, working in dementia care, and she is now a chartered psychologist who specialises in helping carers protect their own health while they look after others.

Super-helper syndrome is also the title of a self-help book for carers that Baker has written with her partner, fellow chartered psychologist Rod Vincent. It offers carers tools to set boundaries, realise their own limitations and understand why they often have an unrealistic and overwhelming need to help others.


Within the National Health Service absenteeism is now at record levels, with stress accounting for more than 30% of sick days.

But it’s not only professionals such as nurses and support staff who need help. About one in ten adults in the UK – about 6.5 million people – are unpaid carers, and their work saves the economy an estimated £132 billion a year, according to the charity Carers UK. Some 72% of them say they have suffered mental ill health as a result of their responsibilities, and 61 per cent report physical health problems. Around 80 per cent say they feel socially isolated.

Every day 6,000 new people become unpaid carers. There are also about 1.3 million ‘sandwich carers’, who are supporting an ageing parent at the same time as they are trying to nurture their own children.


Research shows that it’s in our DNA to care for others – it boosts serotonin levels and gives us a warm glow. But at least one person in every family will have an unhealthy drive to give so much of themselves that they refuse to acknowledge their own needs or seek assistance from others. These are the victims of super-helper syndrome.

‘It’s very important that helpers learn not neglect themselves,’ says Baker. ‘They also need to explore why they think they should neglect themselves. They end up feeling as if they have no control or choices in their lives.’

Whether you are caring for an ageing parent, someone with dementia, a disabled child or relative, or a spouse who has become increasingly frail, it is essential, she says, that you find time to care for yourself. ‘Identify what your needs are, and be honest about them with other people,’ says Baker, who offers free seminars on the subject to charities.

‘Remember you can’t help anyone if you become overstressed or unhealthy. I did a webinar with Carers UK a few months ago and it turned out that some carers even lied about why they needed to take some time for themselves. They felt guilty about it, as if they didn’t deserve it. Many of them are women conditioned to be ‘people pleasers’.

‘But you must be able to ask for help – whether with practical tasks or just the ear of a friend to whom you can unload for ten or 15 minutes. Allow other people to help and support you.

‘Know your limits and your capacity to help. In some cases you might not have the time, or even the expertise to help. You will need to involve professionals. It’s important to understand and accept the limits of your responsibilities. You need to realise you can’t do everything.

‘Set boundaries and be firm on what you can do to help and when. You will be healthier. Nobody wants to end up as an angry or resentful carer. That serves nobody.’


Sandra, 63, is a sandwich carer. She has a 25-year-old daughter, who is single and works in healthcare but often feels stressed and in need of support from her mother.

At the same time Sandra’s own mother is now 85, and after two difficult years when Sandra has struggled to support her – driving for 45 minutes each way to visit her morning and evening – has just been diagnosed with dementia.

Her mother lives alone and now needs either professional support or to move into a care home. But her mother refuses to acknowledge that she is suffering from dementia and does not want to move.

Now, however, Sandra, who has a high-powered job as a finance director, has accepted that she can no longer cope alone (though her brother cares for their mother during the weekends).

She originally came to Baker through her workplace’s employee support scheme after her manager noticed that the quality of her work had slipped.

‘It was only during these coaching sessions that her care dilemma was revealed,’ says Baker. ‘She was really beside herself – worried about failing her mother, and worried about failing the team of people she commands at the office.

‘We were able to talk about the space and time she needs for herself, the help she needs with her mother and how she might get it.

‘Sandra felt her hands were tied. Her mother was in denial, had lost interest in a lot of elements of her earlier life, and Sandra was physically and emotionally exhausted.

‘She also felt terrible guilt because she alone couldn’t provide everything her mother needed. But her mother now needs a level of care she is not equipped to provide.

‘She was at the end of her tether – at breaking point. It’s not unusual for carers to end up harbouring resentment too, because they are giving everything to someone who cannot give anything back because of their own condition. It can become a vicious circle.’ 


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