Working as a counselor can be a rewarding profession. The other side of the coin is that it can be challenging to hear struggles that others have experienced and are experiencing throughout the day. In this role, we are the people who create a safe space for others to be vulnerable and grow individually. In this post, we discuss how to prevent burnout as a therapist as well as essential self-care tips you can use to make sure you’re the best version of you as the stressors of life and our profession hit.
What Does Therapist Burnout Look Like?
An important aspect to being a counselor is being able to find a balance in your life. We need to have a safe place of our own to let go of the thoughts and emotions that come up throughout our work. If you work in a setting where you see clients in back-to-back appointments, you may not have too much of an opportunity to do self-care in-between appointments. In these environments, it is important to make sure that you have time for yourself carved out to avoid having your thoughts and emotions compound into a larger source of distress.
Similar to the mental health concerns we see daily, therapist burnout can look different for each of us. Common experiences include:
- Worrying about clients and/or work responsibilities at home
- Poor concentration
- Sleep disturbances
- Social isolation
Additionally, many therapists’ report low work satisfaction when they are burned out. Burn out can be a reason for the rapid turnover rates that we see in some mental health settings.
What Contributes to Therapist Burnout?
Therapist burnout is a concern that has been present among Mental Health Professionals for decades. As a brief review, burnout can also be called emotional fatigue and emotional overload. This is likely to occur in situations where a counselor does not have time set aside to manage their own mental health after working with clients who struggle with mental health concerns.
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to the development of burnout. Many, if not most, mental health professionals will be at risk of becoming burned out during their career. The environment that we work in can increase our risk of becoming burned out. As an example, if you were to work in an environment where you do not feel supported by your employer or connected to your colleagues, you may experience more insolation than others. Additionally, if you are in a setting with clients who are motivated by external factors, such as legal entities, you may be more at risk of developing burnout.
A large contributing factor to therapist burnout is what we are exposed to at work. Therapist’s and other mental health professionals who work with clients who are survivors of trauma and abuse, and those who struggle with constant suicide ideation may be at a higher risk of developing burnout. The reason behind this is quite simple; these clients are carrying a heavy mental load, and sharing it with you as a mental health professional. If we fail to take care of ourselves, we can find ourselves developing secondary trauma which resembles posttraumatic stress disorder.
With the COVID pandemic over the last few years, we have seen some changes that contribute to therapist burnout. As an example, many counselors began working from home, and some have continued to do so. Working from home may sound convenient, however, it does bring about a different set of concerns. This includes isolation that would likely not occur if you were working in an office. Being around colleagues can be a reliable source of social interaction and support. Additionally, when you work from home you are not as likely to meet a colleague for coffee or lunch as you might if you were working in the office together.
How Can Therapists Manage Their Stress Better?
Stressors will vary for each of us, and can change from day to day. As an example, if I woke up late today because my child didn’t sleep well last night, I may find myself feeling rushed before I leave the house. I could be irritable and grumpy by the time I get to the office. This is an example of a stressor that doesn’t occur every day (hopefully). Living with your own negative self-talk is an example of a stressor that you are more likely to experience daily. Both kinds of stressors can have an impact on our work with clients.
So, what can we do to manage our stress in a healthy way? There are a variety of options that you can choose from. Earlier we mentioned that some mental health professionals work in an environment where they see clients one after another. In situations like this, you likely have a smaller amount of time to manage stress in between sessions. Breathing exercises is an example of what can be done with a smaller amount of time. When we take slow, deep breaths, we are actually sending messages to our brain to release neurotransmitters that help us feel relaxed. You can focus on breathing in and out while focusing your eyes on one object, or using an exercise such as box breathing.
Another option when you are limited on time is trying to laugh. You can think of a funny memory, a joke, or watch a video that makes you laugh.
When you have an opportunity to give yourself a bit more time to respond to stress, you can try other options such as exercise. Exercising can give us an opportunity to get out any pent-up energy that we are holding onto. Additionally, exercising releases endorphins which can help improve our mood.
If you find yourself struggling with feeling isolated, you may benefit from spending time with those you love and care about. Whether it’s getting a coffee with a friend, going on a walk with a family member, or going out to eat with your partner, spending time with others can help improve our mental health.
Using the creative portion of our minds can be a valuable tool as well. This will look different for everyone, since we all have our own unique skills, strengths, and interests. Maybe you enjoy adult coloring books, sewing, wood working, drawing, or needle work. Or maybe you enjoy going to the theater or a musical event.
How to Prevent Burnout as a Therapist
While there may be changes to your work environment that you could pinpoint as factors causing you stress, in many cases, changing these factors require approval from a variety of sources. As a result, systematic changes to your environment may take longer to occur. If you see something that you feel could be improved, you should talk to your supervisor or director about these changes.
In the meantime, there are a variety of things that you can help prevent burnout as a therapist. For many of us, the key is having self-awareness. There is no denying that if we are struggling with our own mental health, we are unable to give 100% of our focus to our clients. Because of this, our first tip is to be aware of any stressors that you are experiencing.
Maintaining self-awareness about your stress load and emotions can help you determine when you may need to show yourself additional kindness and compassion. If you find that you are feeling a bit on edge, moody, tired, or overwhelmed, it may be time for you to give yourself some time for yourself.
Therapist self-care is often misunderstood; you do not need a vacation or spa day to engage in self-care. Therapist self-care can be incorporating small changes into your routine that promote mental health, spiritual health, and physical health. An example of this could be doing a short walk, 10 to 15 minutes, during your lunch break or when you get home from work.
Here are some self-care ideas you can practice:
- Limit the number of client hours you schedule each week
- Take care of yourself physically through exercise
- Eat healthy foods
- Know when to say no
- Get enough sleep
- Check in with yourself regularly
- Surround yourself with great people who care about you
- Get away from the noise and enjoy quiet time
- Spend time doing a hobby that you enjoy
- Practice breath work
- Go for a walk in nature
Implement Work-Life Boundaries
Setting work-life boundaries is a great way to protect yourself from burnout. This means leaving work at work, literally and emotionally. While this is easier said than done, it is a vital part of having a healthy work life balance. An example of creating a boundary for this would be to pick a point during your commute- you do not think about your day in the morning until you get to that point, and you do not think about your work day once you drive past it on your way home. Another option would be not checking your work email, charts, or your schedule at home.
Another great resource is engaging in regular supervision. While supervision may be more common when we first begin working in the mental health field, continuing to engage in supervision and consultations can help us receive feedback from others regarding any changes that they observe in us, as well as learning about what has helped them when they struggle.
Final Thoughts on Preventing Burnout for Therapists
Mental health professionals can understand and appreciate the struggles that come when we feel overwhelmed with work. It is important that we reach out when we are struggling, and receive the support that we would give others if they were in our shoes. Burnout is real and fairly common for service-based professionals, especially those who engage in helping others deal with their problems. It can slowly creep into every aspect of our lives, so it’s important to have a plan in place to combat burnout before it happens, not after.
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