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Dealing with Burnout as a Therapist

In a previous post on burnout, I noted general recommendations for combating burnout during stressful circumstances. However, I feel that for therapists and others in the helping professions, this is an area that is often neglected until it’s too late. A colleague once shared with me that she believes that “it’s in the nature of the field”, similar to how teachers and daycare providers are bound to get sick when exposed to enough cooties. Below are some tips for working through a burnout episode.

1) Boundaries, boundaries, BOUNDARIES

I emphasize boundaries not just between yourself and others, but with yourself. The boundaries that we set with ourselves might be boring tasks such as sticking to a bedtime or not checking work emails outside of work hours. We also have legal and ethical boundaries we must abide by to professionally protect ourselves and patients.

Notice if you are feeling any emotions such as anger, resentment, or anxiety, which may come up when our boundaries are not in place or are being crossed. Practice assertiveness or saying no. Boundary-setting might be an uncomfortable thing if you’re not accustomed to it, but it will come more easily with practice.

2) Evaluate what is within your control

This can be a tough one, especially if you do not work for yourself or for a private practice setting. Things outside of our control might include documentation deadlines, productivity requirements, staff meetings, or even the option of working from home. Aim to identify what is within your control, even if the big option is to leave your current position.

It never hurts to ask or to self-advocate for your needs at work. (The worst that can happen is that you’re told no.) I once had a colleague who requested to skip all staff meetings for one week for the sole purpose of catching up on her long overdue documentation. Other approaches might include scheduling administrative time the way that you would appointment slots. Some colleagues radically accept that they will never meet productivity requirements. (Really!) If it’s out of your control, let it go. If it’s within your control, ask yourself what you can do.

3) Identify and use sources of support

The two most important sources of support are often (1) our loved ones and (2) the people that we work with. I like to think of our loved ones as the people that help us to keep going outside of work, while our professional supports (managers, colleagues, etc.) help to sustain us at work. However, if relationships are strained in one or both areas, aim to work on improving them. (Or ending them if you deem the relationship to be toxic.)

Other sources of support can include professional mentors and groups, our own therapists and healthcare providers, loved ones that we may not have reached out to in awhile, or even neighbors. Aim to identify even one person that may help to walk you through a burnout period.

4) Consider your ideal schedule, caseload, and work environment

In true Miracle Question style, ask yourself what things would look like if you had the ideal schedule, clients, and workspace. If all issues were to suddenly vanish, what would work feel like? Was there ever a time where you felt close to having this? What would need to happen to get closer to this?

In your own private practice this is an area that you have far more control over than other work environments. Depending on where you work, you might only be able to practice during specific hours. If you can create your own session slots, appointment buffers, request to see (or not see) certain clients, and adjust your office space, these changes may offer a huge relief.

5) Practice relaxing activities

Therapists and coaches are great at teaching these techniques to their clients, but I genuinely wonder how many of us practice relaxation outside of work. A few ideas that come to mind:

  • Listen to a meditation app

  • Practice 10-20 minutes of yoga

  • Practice tai chi

  • Practice mindfulness during daily tasks (such as brushing your teeth or making the bed)

6) Physical activity

Aim to get some level of physical activity, especially if you spend most of your days sitting. Get up and stretch between sessions. Take a brisk walk during your lunch break. Try a bit of yoga before bed. If you are on a time crunch, I recommend going on Youtube for quick workout videos. They’re timed and you don’t have to plan out the workout; just follow along!

7) Prioritize sleep and rest

I often urge clients to prioritize their sleep, breaks, and time off of work as much as possible. Good mental health really requires us to take care of our brains, and we cannot expect our brains to function without rest. Some ideas to consider:

  • Implement a healthy bedtime routine

  • Implement a healthy wakeup routine

  • Take time off of work

  • Proactively schedule time off of work in advance (example, schedule a week off every 3 months)

8) Seek out professional help

I encourage therapists and aspiring-therapists to seek out their own therapy for their own processing. However, professional help might include other supports, such as seeing a doctor, a massage therapist, or even a reiki practitioner. I once worked with a colleague who thought she was experiencing significant anxiety symptoms. After an episode of serious heart palpitations, she was placed on a heart medication and began to feel a lot better. Take care of your overall well being. Healthcare professionals need their own health team too!

What tips do you have for dealing with burnout?

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