When you first begin your career in therapy, you’ll be eager to use the knowledge and skills you’ve developed to improve the lives of patients. Most therapists enter the field with the intent of helping others in need. It can be a difficult and thankless job at times. Without even realizing it, you can quickly become burned out. This problem gets especially acute during the first 5 years of your practice but it also can make an appearance later in your career as well. The good news is that burnout can be prevented!
As a therapist, you’ll be dealing with some heavy stuff. Nobody comes to therapy with the complaint that they’re too happy and emotionally healthy. The patients you see could have a wide range of problems, from difficulties in marriage or personal relationships, to depression, to anxiety, to abuse, to self-harm, to addiction, to thoughts of suicide, to serious psychoses. In other words, the majority of your time as a professional could center on listening to the worst that can happen to a human being. And you’ll do it in one-hour blocks, all day, every day of the week. If you’re new to the profession, don’t underestimate the mental toll upon yourself when you first hear a patient sharing details of sexual abuse with you or any horrible situation involving children.
I know what it’s like!
When I worked as a paramedic in Houston, I spent many, many nights working in the Ben Taub Hospital Emergency Center with patients coming off the ambulance missing limbs, with gunshot wounds or simply beaten to a pulp with a brick. I can still feel and hear the sticky clicking of the puddles of blood under my boots while we were working in the shock-trauma rooms. I can still smell the metallic scent of blood mixed with the pungent smell of rubbing alcohol mixed with beer, sweat and human excrement. I was “tough” and could “handle” it because it was part of my job. When it was “go-time,” you didn’t even think about it, you just went elbows-deep into saving the person’s life. However, as human beings, those situations do have an effect, now matter how imperceptible it may be at the time. Even if your work as a therapist doesn’t deal with physical trauma, helping people cope with mental trauma can be much, much more difficult (in my opinion.) Perhaps it’s because of my personality; I see physical trauma as an engineering challenge, something to fix. The solution is clear even if it might be incredibly difficult. With mental health, it can seem like the solution isn’t even possible. You’re hearing often some of the most brutal experiences a human can have. You’re hearing heart-breaking situations. You’re hearing dreams and hopes that aren’t attainable. For me, that seems like an impossible mission. Mental health practitioners: you have my highest respect!
Signs of therapist burnout
Because of the stresses associated with being a therapist, you could become understandably fatigued in the process – mentally, emotionally, and even physically. This is burnout.
Here are some indicators of therapist burnout:
- general fatigue
- resentment toward patients
- other negative feelings
- avoidance of responsibilities
In some cases, you could potentially even develop symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. You can’t “catch” mental illness, but the cumulative effect of a seemingly never-ending stream of tough patients can take a toll.
As a result, you could end up behaving in a manner unbefitting of your status as a caregiver. You might even break down in front of patients or treat them badly. You may miss appointments because you simply can’t face up to your responsibilities. At some point, you might even be tempted to throw in the towel and shut down your practice, passing the patients that trusted you to other therapists.
The long and short of it is that you can all too easily become burned out when you’re treating patients day in and day out. This is bad news for both you and your patients.
Burnout can be prevented
The good news is that you can also take steps to prevent this from happening. If you’re smart and realistic about the potential for burnout in your profession, you’ll quickly discover that you’re not alone. And you don’t have to reinvent the wheel – there are plenty of other therapists that have been where you are (or even further down the rabbit hole) and they are willing to share their experiences and advice.
Therapy for the therapist
If you’re experiencing feelings of burnout, perhaps you should seek the services of a fellow practitioner for therapy sessions of your own. If you’re working so hard and shouldering so much stress that you’ve gotten burned out, chances are you don’t have a very clear perspective on your own situation. Another professional can help you address these issues and come up with strategies to get back to a healthier, happier state of being without closing the doors to your practice. Online therapy could be perfect for you — you can do a session with a therapist from right within your own office. Perhaps find a therapist that you can keep “on call” and just schedule a therapy session when you feel like you might be having a particularly rough week.
Set boundaries and reduce your velocity
In terms of common sense solutions, one good option to explore is cutting back, at least for a while. If you’ve become popular, you may have back-to-back-to-back bookings with no breaks. And if you’re devoted to your patients, you might even take calls in your off-time. But you need to take the advice you’ve probably given to every patient – set boundaries. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself by scheduling downtime for recovery between appointments. And unless calls are an emergency, do not answer the phone when patients call. In fact, don’t give them a personal number. Refer them to an answering service so that your time away from the office is your own.
Dr. Ryan Howes has a great list of tips to help you prevent burnout. Highly recommended reading!
When you are happy and healthy, you’ll be in the best position to offer your patients the care they need.