Burnout is at an all-time high, and not just among therapists. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Society found that over 50 percent of American workers reported signs of burnout, including fatigue, distractibility, and reduced personal efficacy. While it is normal to occasionally feel lethargic and lackluster, if these symptoms persist, you may be headed towards burnout.
What is burnout?
Psychologist Ryan Howes defines burnout as the imbalance between the psychological resources of an individual and the demands made on that individual. The result is a state of exhaustion and overwhelm. Research shows that while therapists readily identify burnout in their patients, they don’t always recognize the signs in themselves. You may be burned out if:
You routinely drag yourself to work.
You find yourself giving advice or “quick fixes” to patients instead of working towards long-term growth.
You have a hard time staying focused and engaged during sessions.
You feel annoyed by your patients or find it difficult to empathize with them.
You start sessions late and/or end sessions early.
You feel relieved when patients cancel.
You self-disclose in ways that are not helpful to patients.
You find yourself relaxing professional boundaries– for example, complaining about patients to colleagues.
You fantasize about quitting.
Self-care: The antidote to burnout
Therapists talk to their patients about the importance of self-care but don’t always prioritize it for themselves. As Dr. Howes notes, therapists are “masters at caregiving but novices at self-care.” Moreover, therapists are especially prone to burnout due to the emotional intensity of their work. Thus, it is even more important that therapists follow the adage of putting on their oxygen masks first, and assisting others second.
Self-care comes in many forms: mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and physical. What constitutes self-care varies from person to person, but there are specific recommendations for therapists, such as:
Set and maintain boundaries.
Consider when and how you are available to patients. Is it at all hours of the day/week? Do you reply to messages during what should be your personal time? Establishing clear and firm boundaries not only preserves the therapeutic relationship but also helps prevent burnout.
Join a group.
Being a therapist can be isolating. Due to the laws of confidentiality, therapists can’t talk about their work with friends or family the way that other professionals can. Joining a clinical supervision group provides therapists the opportunity to discuss cases, ethical dilemmas, and other challenges and get emotional support from colleagues in the field.
Branch out to non-clinical work.
Another way to prevent burnout is to supplement clinical work with other endeavors, like teaching, supervision, research, or writing. Expanding to different roles and modalities provides therapists with new passions and pursuits to offset the demands of 1:1 clinical work.
Enrich your personal life.
We all know the dangers of “all work and no play.” How much time do you spend on hobbies or other leisure activities? How often do you see family and friends? Are you connected to communities outside of work? Having a life and an identity beyond your profession is essential if you want to avoid burnout.
Over 80 percent of therapists have had therapy themselves. In addition to helping you cope with symptoms of burnout, therapy exposes you to different approaches and techniques and helps you develop more empathy for your patients. How do you know when it is time to seek therapy? See Belongly’s December 4 blog post here.
Review your hours, fees, and time off.
Are you feeling overworked and underpaid? Maybe your caseload has become unmanageable, or it’s been years since you got a raise or increased your fee. A sustainable schedule, adequate pay, and regular vacation time can all help to insulate you from burnout.
If you are feeling emotionally drained, unmotivated, and unfulfilled at work, you might be experiencing burnout. Fortunately, self-care can effectively reduce symptoms of burnout. As authors John Norcross and Gary VandenBos state in their book Leaving It at the Office: A Guide to Psychotherapist Self-Care, “Self-care is not a narcissistic luxury to be fulfilled as time permits; it is a human requisite, a clinical necessity, and an ethical imperative.”