As the demand for therapy increases among the U.S. population, therapists are increasingly at risk of suffering from burnout. Burnout is the term used to describe the high levels of stress, exhaustion, and reduced performance that often plague those working in service, counselor, and “helping” professions.
However, as a recognized risk of the therapy and mental health field, burnout is now being addressed on a number of levels. There are many ways to recognize the signs of burnout in mental health professionals and prevent them from manifesting into larger issues.
What is Burnout?
Coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s, burnout is the term used to describe the feelings of stress and lowered performance that may manifest among active therapists. The term itself is related to a slang word from Freudenberger’s time to describe extreme drug use. It also has ties to phrases like “burning the candle at both ends,” often used to describe someone who isn’t taking any time to rest.
The term “burnout” became an officially recognized term when it was added to World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.
What Causes Burnout?
You can recognize burnout by certain signs and symptoms, including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or alienation from work activities, and decreased performance or sense of accomplishment. While these symptoms are widely agreed upon, like any personal issue there’s a range to each symptom that differs by individual.
It’s also important to note the differences between burnout and stress. Stress is usually short term and the result of a specific goal or event. According to Psychology Today, “... burnout is an extended period of stress that feels as though it cannot be ameliorated.”
The causes of burnout include pressures such as working long hours and taking on too many tasks at once. But burnout is also characterized by:
- Lack of interest in the job
- Lack of control
- Compassion fatigue
- Gastrointestinal issues
Signs You’re Experiencing Burnout as a Therapist
Research suggests the most difficult step to dealing with burnout is initially recognizing it. As a profession often focused on serving others, pausing to check in with yourself as a therapist is sometimes an overlooked practice. As a result, many therapists don’t recognize the signs of burnout in themselves until it’s too late. If you’re considering working in this field, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with these signs of burnout common among therapists:
- Relief when a client cancels
- Beginning sessions late or ending sessions early
- Feeling burdened by client trauma
- Feeling overwhelmed, chronically tired, or overextended
- Feeling less empathetic, more impatient, or more judgmental toward clients
- Depersonalization toward clients
Unfortunately, burnout is fairly common among therapists. However, as it becomes more common, more information around recognizing, treating, and preventing it has also become more prevalent.
Does Burnout as a Therapist Affect Patient Care?
Burnout often leaves a therapist drained and unable or unwilling to care well for their patients. A therapist or care-industry worker experiencing burnout may shorten sessions, engage in passive listening practices during sessions, or overshare personal information unrelated to clients’ issues.
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There is a tendency to depersonalize clients. According to Wheel.com, a corporation providing virtual healthcare solutions for large companies, “Providers with [burnout] can find themselves detaching and forming a detached, callous, or dehumanized attitude towards clients as they are perceived to be a source of stress and anxiety.”
Naturally, a therapist experiencing these types of feelings toward their clients is going to provide less effective patient therapy.
How to Prevent Burnout: Five Tips
Preventing burnout might look different for everyone, but here are five fairly universal tips you can apply to your life to prevent burnout.
1. Set boundaries for work
As a therapist, you might find boundaries to be particularly difficult because your profession seems to demand a “do-all-that-you-can” mentality most of the time. But that’s precisely the mindset author and psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb recommends getting away from. She recommends boundaries as one of the best methods of self-care.
Coming to terms with the reality that you can’t help everyone all of the time is a difficult one, but it’s important to remember the work will always be there. You’re more valuable to your patients when you’re operating on a full tank rather than an empty one.
2. Practice daily self-care
Along with setting boundaries, self-care is an excellent way to combat burnout. Self-care is defined by World Health Organization (WHO) as “the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote their own health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.” Although there are now many ways to engage in expensive self-care, most often it’s the manageable, inexpensive self-care habits that become the most impactful in your personal life.
Opportunities for practical self-care include taking vitamins, having the right over-the-counter prescriptions at home for treating mild illnesses or injuries, taking a walk, or even closing your eyes and meditating for three to five minutes. For therapists specifically, it’s important to take adequate time between sessions, eat properly, and get enough sleep. Intangible self-care practices like taking full, deep breaths, practicing self-compassion, and saying “no” are important as well.
3. Find hobbies or passions you can tap into
Sometimes this can be a difficult practice to engage in if you don’t already have established hobbies, but this can be really valuable for individuals who are working in the therapy field. Plenty of science supports the idea that play is good for us, and regularly engaging in recreation is necessary for a healthy life and good stress management.
Finding new ways to use your mind with activities that aren’t linked to your work helps reinforce boundaries between your personal life and professional life as well. Studies have also shown something as simple as caring for plants can reduce stress response and anxiety.
4. Take care of your physical body
This might seem obvious, but this tip extends beyond just going outside for a walk now and then. Taking good care of yourself includes finding the right nutritional balance which may include taking new or different supplements. Practice mindful eating. Are you paying attention to the food you’re eating, or are you checked out staring at a screen and passively consuming?
Try rotating your workout routine with a new activity that encourages you to move yourself differently. Taking good care of your physical body will make it easier to focus during your work day and be successful long term.
5. Attend to your own mental and spiritual wellness
Many counseling and therapy programs encourage their students to attend therapy themselves. In Europe, therapists are actually required to attend 250 hours of personal therapy before receiving their license. Therapy itself can even be a spiritual practice. Regular attendance for therapists has been shown to improve mental health whether it’s weekly or several times a year.
To this end, many practicing therapists invest in their spiritual side on a regular basis. Whether that’s through meditation, prayer, or mindfulness, attending to your spiritual side will help you maintain balance and has been shown to reduce stress levels. And while there is ample colloquial evidence to support that spirituality has a positive impact on burnout, this phenomenon is also documented in scientific studies.
At PLNU, we support the intersection of faith and people, encouraging students to discover more about themselves and their calling through their program. The Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling program helps you discover all of the avenues available for a healthy spiritual practice while providing a top educational experience in preparation to better serve your clients.
How to Recover From Therapist Burnout
The mental health field is nothing if not enthusiastic about helping people, and that includes its own individuals. As a result, there are many proven ways to recover burnout. By engaging in healthy strategies you can prevent and recover from therapist burnout. It starts with understanding and acknowledging the warning signs before you start feeling too overwhelmed and taking the appropriate steps to alleviate those symptoms.
A career in therapy may come with a higher risk of burnout, but it can be extremely affirming and rewarding when you know how to address the signs. Want to learn more? Explore different careers in counseling here.