Several years ago I was totally burned out by the therapy profession. I started looking for a way out as many have done looking for an alternative career but really it was more important to find a way to love being a therapist again. Here are seven strategies to help you combat or prevent the development of therapist burnout.
Why are Therapists Susceptible to Burnout?
It is no secret that all rehabilitation therapist professionals, occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), and speech therapists (SLPs) are working more hours than ever before. But what some people may not know is the toll this has taken on their mental health and emotional stability. Therapists are overworked, underpaid, and burned out.
Challenges of Being a Therapist
The development of burnout in a worker is generated by complex interactions between personal and ecological factors. Unrealistic productivity expectations, treating many patients or clients each day, over-burdening documentation, and bureaucratic red tape.
Therapy Practice: Burnout Stress and Fatigue
Rehabilitation therapy are professions that can be extremely rewarding, but it certainly has its challenges. Many students and early career therapists are well aware of the demand placed on our time by competing priorities like productivity, documentation requirements (even point of care documentation), family life/social time, continuing education, etc.
However what may not be obvious to everyone is the toll that these demands can take on your mental and emotional health and well-being, and to a certain extent your physical health as well. Compassion fatigue is when someone in a caregiving profession such as nursing, therapy, or other careers that involve helping others become detached and has a hard time continuing to care for their patients to the best of their abilities. They are burnt out on caring and at times with moral injury.
Therapist Burnout: The Signs You Should Look Out For
There is a dark side to the professions we love. The job demands can take a toll on our physical and mental health. Burnout, stress, compassion fatigue—they all sound similar but have different meanings and impact our lives in very distinct ways. There are many factors that contribute to occupational therapy burnout, but regardless of the cause, it is critically important to recognize when burnout is present and take steps to address it.
Signs of Job Burnout
Burnout is a term that gets thrown around in all types of workplaces. The signs of burnout vary depending on the person, but there are some common therapist burnout signs that everyone should be aware of.
- Dread going to work
- Requires great effort to get ready for work in the morning
- Short-tempered or impatient with co-workers and clients
- Lack the drive and energy to be productive
- Difficulty concentrating
- Lack fulfilment from your accomplishments
- Reduced satisfaction from helping your clients
- Using food or alcohol to feel better after work
- Difficulty sleeping
- Unexplained headaches or other physical concerns
We all have days when we are tired, angry, or irritable. These are typical thoughts, and we usually rebound from them. However, if you're experiencing these moods often it may be time to take a closer look at why and find strategies to combat them.
The question becomes: how can we stop this? How can we keep our profession sustainable for the future generations of allied health professionals and rehab therapists?
1. Evaluate Your Work Life Balance
Do you have work-life balance? Or are you working off the clock with no time for yourself?
If not, take a good look at why your work-life balance is out of whack. What can you do to put yourself back into control?
Can you write shorter notes? Find out what really needs to go in those notes to write them quicker? Change your schedule of clients to drive less if you are working in home health?
Sometimes I find I can take back some control just by making a plan.
As therapists, we are used to saying yes. But sometimes we need to say no too.
2. Make Time for Self-care
What is your self-care plan? A game you can play is thinking of yourself as a client. What would you tell your client about self-care?
As an occupational therapist, I often work with children with sensory processing disorder who require additional sensory input to regulate and achieve calm. I explain proprioceptive input as the “runners high” from jogging. And the calming feeling a deep pressure as the feeling after a massage. Everyone can benefit from additional proprioceptive and deep pressure input.
Finding time to exercise is hard when you are working so many hours and bringing paperwork home. But this increased proprioceptive input from running, walking or weights can make a significant impact on your ability to self regulate, mood, and quality of life.
Make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet and drinking enough water. Are you getting enough sleep? Sleep affects mood which affects our ability to manage stress.
There are so many lists of ideas out there, take a look and put some into your daily routine and make self-care a habit.
I have personally started including increasing my access to fresh air and nature and using scented candles in my self-care plan.
3. Maintain Professional Boundaries
It has become harder to maintain this professional distance and boundaries in this day and age with immediate access to information and others. Between social media, text messages, emails, and the internet I would say it is becoming almost impossible.
Check out my article on The Importance of Maintaining Professional Boundaries.
4. Take Stock of Your Accomplishments
As a therapist, you have helped people! It is a non-question. They are out there. Whether you have been practicing for a month or 30 years. How are you keeping track of these accomplishments? What about the other positives in your life? Sometimes it is too easy to get bogged down in the negative. But look at all the good you have done.
Don't be so hard on yourself. No therapist knows everything! It is jsut imporossible. The best therapists work within their knowledge base and if they don't know it, they find out, seek out help, or refer out.
Do you keep thank you notes and holiday cards from families? Post them where you can see them! Make a compliment folder or board. Others call this a “yeah me” email folder.
Do you have photos of clients you have impacted the quality of life of?
Thank you notes from patients and families? Do you keep the small gifts?
I had a mentee tell me about how much it meant to her that she was able to be the only visitor to many home health patients during covid. I have a bag a preschool class made with all their fingerprints when I left.
How do you remind yourself of all the positive impacts you have made?
5. Take Control of your Finances
Why is taking control of your finances on the list of strategies to combat burnout? Because there is freedom in knowing you are not totally stuck in a job.
My #1 financial advice is to build your emergency fund so you are not working out of total desperation.
Know your expenses and budget. The next step is to build FU money, or “peace out money” so if the shit really hits the fan you can walk about from a bad work situation.
I recommend checking out choosefi.com.
If you are working as a contractor check out these tips. The goal is to save as much money and pay off as much debt as you can to gain back control. See my money tips for contractors here.
6. Find a Mentor
A mentor and support can be the #1 way to combat burnout. How to find a mentor. And Types of Mentors and 8 Reasons Why You Need One.
Let someone who has been through it all help you fall in love with being a therapist again. We all know that support is so important in all areas of life.
7. Revaluate your workplace
Not all workplaces are created equally. While employment options may be limited as a new graduate. It is smart to reevaluate your options on a regular basis.
Have you heard the term moral injury? Moral injury is “the strong cognitive and emotional response that can occur following events that violate a person's moral or ethical code”. Is your place of employment working within your moral and ethical code?
Are you working somewhere you feel respected and you can feel accomplished? Are expectations reasonable? What items can you control and what can you not control as you combat burnout?