burnout therapy

Therapist Burnout

Burnout isn’t a new topic among therapists. And as a therapist who works primarily with other therapists, I talk about it a lot. Conversations around burnout tend to focus on the question of why it happened. This makes sense- if you can figure out why it happened, you can fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Usually, the culprits are outside of ourselves: the overbearing boss, agency restrictions, tight documentation deadlines, high caseload expectations.

But this article offers a different suggestion and a new challenge. If it’s true that people who love their jobs are more prone to burnout, what does that mean for us in the therapy field?

Burnout in therapists

Therapy is not an easy field to get into. You need a master’s degree plus a long, low-paid (or unpaid!) internship. There are huge financial barriers to entry, and there’s no guarantee of a decent income once you’re licensed.

That reality means that a lot of therapists choose this field because they genuinely love it. Most therapists love working with people. It’s such an honor to be a part of someone’s healing and growth. And this very fact may actually be part of what’s contributing to our burnout.

Of course, that’s not to excuse a bad work environment or the pressures of managed care. A terrible boss is still awful to work with. But it does suggest that part of the reason for therapist burnout may be our love for the job itself.

Passion = burnout?

The article quotes Dr. Kira Schabram whose research concluded that passion makes your work the major focus of your life. When you love what you do, you’re less likely to honor work-life balance. You might start to spend your free time thinking about work-related ideas.

And when you start to burn out, your life looks almost the opposite. You start to question whether or not therapy is right for you. You notice that you’ve started to get cynical about your clients when it feels like nothing you do is effective. You’re tired of the work from the moment you wake up until the last client is out the door or logged off the call.

You can see how the very passion that brought you into the field can leave you burned out and desperate to leave. Passion creates conditions where you don’t have much outside of the job. And that’s okay when things are going well and your energy and interest are high. But that changes when you need a break. When your outside-work life looks just like your work life, there’s nowhere to escape when it starts to get to be too much.

How do we fix the burnout cycle?

The answer can’t be that we need to become apathetic toward our work and toward our clients. The passion that brought many of us to this work can be sustained in a healthy way. But we need boundaries around our work life and our non-work life that protect us from our passions becoming all-consuming.

I’ve been inspired by another article from Erica Bobish of Inclusive Therapists that can help you change your mindset around productivity and the idea of “earning” rest. Read the following excerpt and see how it feels.

When we view rest as a reward, or something that we need to earn, we teach ourselves that we are not inherently deserving of rest. I used to be someone who constantly justified self-care within the context of the saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup”. This phrase really resonated with me, and reminded me that I can’t help others and be a good therapist/partner/friend/advocate if I wasn’t taking care of myself. 

Although this is exactly true, I was telling myself that rest was just a way for me to be able to give to others. In a professional training regarding self-care, I mentioned this phrase and a colleague responded by saying, “yes… but you can also take care of yourself and rest simply because you need it and you deserve it.” This is such a simple, logical concept, but in that moment I felt fully taken aback. That was the moment I realized that my version of rest was an act that I had been doing for others instead of myself. 

Erica Bobish

I’ll encourage everyone to spend some time reading her article. As a therapist, she understands the pressure to prioritize work and to do self care for others instead of for ourselves.

Taking joy in your work is excellent, but work cannot be allowed to become your entire life. Regular rest, hobbies outside of work, and mental breaks help us categorize work as one facet of our lives. It may still be a large facet, but it is one of many.

What’s your risk level?

  • Most of the books you read for fun are about therapy or related topics
  • You start work early or end work late because you enjoy being there
  • You find yourself comparing your tiredness or busyness with others
  • Most of your friends are also therapists and you tend to talk shop when you’re with them
  • You evaluate your day on the basis of how much you got done
  • Everything on your to-do list is urgent

What you can do to help

  • Practice a non-work related hobby in your off hours
  • Limit the time you spend working on work
  • Come up with a script to help you say no to extra work
  • Track patterns to discover what truly energizes and drains you at work
  • Integrate rest into your daily schedule- whether you’ve “earned” it or not
  • Examine the pressures that keep you working outside of client hours and evaluate if they truly line up with your values or not

Need help managing burnout?

I work with therapists to deal with burnout, develop routines of rest, and create a sustainable life. If you’re in California, contact me for a free consultation to see how I can help you or learn more about me here. Let’s work together to make sure that your passion for the work can sustain you through a long and fruitful career!

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