Red Flags

Burnout doesn’t typically just happen. First, you’ll experience stress, then layers of chronic stress, then burnout which occurs when chronic stress becomes permanent. You’ll start to notice that you’re emotionally exhausted, fatigued, and not as connected to your work and the meaning of your work and a greater sense of purpose.”

Julia Colangelo

What to look out for:

Physical reactions: changes in sleep or appetite, and headaches or stomach aches

Emotional reactions: an increased sense of vulnerability, more regular mood swings, and heightened irritability

Behavioral reactions: a sense of isolation or withdrawal from social interactions, increased alcohol or drug consumption, and negative changes in personal and professional relationships

COVID-19: The Unwelcome Booster

Adults around the country have faced increasing mental health challenges during the pandemic. According to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in June 2020, more than 40% of adults were struggling with substance use or a mental health issue, like depression, anxiety, trauma, or serious thoughts of suicide.

As a result, the lines of those turning to mental health professionals for support continue to grow. Besides the influx of new patients, some 44% of psychologists say they’ve also seen a drop in cancellations and no-shows. This has resulted in leaving many mental health professionals with packed schedules—but the calls from new patients keep coming. Consequently, prospective patients are placed on long waitlists before they can hope to be seen.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Because not only are these clinicians dealing with an incessant swell in demand from the ongoing mental health crisis, they’re also attempting to manage their own burnout and stress at the same time. Ironically, clinicians’ schedules have become overloaded at a time when they themselves are confronting emotional issues from the pandemic.

Worrisome Implications of Therapist Burnout

By nature, therapists are caring and compassionate people. They enter the field with the noble intent to help others. However, that caring can be overdone. Because if therapists exclude themselves from the circle of care, emotional fatigue and burnout come – and they can come awfully fast.

The unpleasant truth is that heavier caseloads, growing concerns about patients’ well-being, and a lack of work-life balance, combined with the therapists’ own personal emotional stress from the pandemic, is leading to an unprecedented risk of burnout among mental healthcare professionals. Therapists can’t help people fill their “emotional gas tanks” if their own are running on mere fumes.

And the problem is not limited to inferior care. It can also lead to compromising the therapist’s health, causing insomnia, heart disease, excessive stress, and increased risk of depression and substance abuse.

3 Ingredients that Produce Therapist Burnout

1. Emotional Depletion or Compassion Fatigue

Emotional Depletion or Compassion Fatigue is a secondary stress reaction common among mental health providers. The constant interaction with people who are in psychic pain, feel suicidal, are grieving over the loss of loved ones, or those severely traumatized often takes a heavy emotional toll on practitioners. It can lead to the therapist becoming “infected” with a client’s sadness; that which Jung called “psychic poisoning.”

2. Incessant Worry

Oftentimes therapists are in a constant state of worry about whether a patient is going to follow up on a threat to harm one’s self or another. Regardless of whether or not the therapist reports such intentions or makes a contract with the patient, restless nights and anxiety are common occupational hazards.

3. Helplessness and Sense of Inefficiency

Unlike carpenters, gardeners, or surgeons, therapists rarely see immediate, profound, or even tangible results from their work. The work is generally slow and tedious to demonstrate results. Even when therapy is effective in relieving painful symptoms and termination is successful, patients leave, often never to return to the therapist, so there is no follow-up with the therapist to remind them of what occurred.

The ABCs of Avoiding Burnout

1. Awareness

Check-in on your body and your emotional state, focusing on your stress levels in a concrete fashion. Before entering the room or logging on to a remote session, take 30 seconds or some deep breaths. Ask yourself: “How am I feeling right now? Do I sense stress anywhere in my body, neck, shoulders, jaw, stomach, etc.?” Then take a deep abdominal breath and slowly release it. Repeat as often as time allows.

2. Boundaries

You will increase your productivity and longevity when you create healthy boundaries by making time to rest, relax, and recharge. By becoming mindful of work-life balance and implementing boundaries that reflect that awareness, you will help keep your “batteries charged,” while at the same time giving yourself time and space to grow both personally and as a therapist. Learn to say “no” gently and with a genuine smile.

3. Care

Self-care means different things to different people. It can include spiritual practice, exercise, proper sleep, and lots of fresh air. Enjoy your life and your work in a way that is sustainable. While everyone needs regular downtime and restoration, those in the helping professions may need it even more. Seek solitude and time in nature, and remember to keep “in touch” with yourself.

4. Distractions

Another good way to prevent burnout is to stop ruminating about what happened today! When you leave work, make sure to distract yourself with outside-of-work tasks. When your brain is busy thinking of work even after you have left your workplace, your body thinks it is still actually working. This will increase the likelihood of burnout.

5. Endorphins

It could be that you work in a high-stress field that has no room for setting healthy boundaries. Realistically, not everyone is fortunate enough to have the freedom to decline a task or avoid working on projects outside of their job description. If this is your lot, what can you do to avoid burnout? You need to invest yourself in releasing stress-relieving endorphins by exercising, listening to music, or being creative.

6. Family

Build supportive relationships with people whenever possible. Connecting with others, whether family or friends, even virtually, will bring you to an entirely different place. Think of activities that bring you the most joy and make you feel the most fulfilled, and whom you want to share them with, and schedule them into your calendar to ensure they don’t get “lost” in the shuffle.

When you Still Need More Help

What’s important to keep in mind is that, while all of these strategies have proven effective for many people, including therapists, they still may not be enough. In that case, it may be time to find a therapist for yourself. And there is nothing to be ashamed of. While you may be an excellent therapist in your own right, you are still a person with very normal emotional and psychological needs. Do what you need to do to attend to them!