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Life as a provider

A provider's take on battling your own burnout

Text on a watercolor background, reading "Beating burnout."

If you’re feeling empowered to take your burnout head-on, read on for advice on five ways you can battle burnout as a therapist.

Psychiatrist Andy Cruz stays busy: he’s a Medical Director at Headway, treats patients at a low-barrier substance abuse clinic, and also runs a small private practice. It’s all in the name of helping others, as he puts it. A personal mission that probably rings true for every mental health provider.

But being a caretaker has its toll.

“You're facing suffering head-to-head every day, and that suffering has to go somewhere,” Andy says. “I think we internalize some of it.”

Battling burnout is, of course, easier said than done. Even if you’re committed to self-care on an intellectual level, the motivation to act on it needs to come from somewhere deeper — “it’s got to sit in your chest,” Andy says — especially if you’re up against other headwinds.

“As a hispanic and gay man who was the first in my family to graduate from college, I want to acknowledge that for women, for persons of color, for LGBTQ persons, it is more difficult to advocate for yourself because you've been taught your whole life that you're not worth it,” Andy says.

“But you are. You’re worth it.”

If you’re feeling empowered to take your burnout head-on, read on for more of Andy’s advice on five ways you can battle burnout as a therapist.

1. Set better boundaries

Your work might feel like a calling. But it’s still work. And you need ground rules to protect your time.

That might mean sticking ruthlessly to working hours, establishing a generous reply window for text messages, or defining your turnaround times for, say, refilling a prescription in Andy’s case.

“Those kinds of boundaries really allow you to take care of yourself so that you can take care of patients,” he says.

In fact, being on-call around the clock is a lose-lose situation.

“If your policy is about trying to bend over backwards and always be available — first of all, I don't think that's good for the patient, because it doesn't set reasonable expectations and boundaries for the rest of the healthcare providers,” he says, “but also it's going to be really stressful on you.”

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2. Consider therapy

You can’t ignore mental health when you work in mental health. But Andy wants to remind providers to seek out mental health care for themselves. Acknowledging the areas where you need mental healthcare doesn’t reflect poorly on your ability to provide care for others.

“It's so stigmatized,” Andy says. “We should be able to talk about this. The fact that some of us have depression, and some of us have anxiety, and some of us maybe drink too much alcohol. Your employees, your doctors — they're not saints, they're people.”

A colorful illustration of a man and pregnant woman dancing.

3. Prioritize your financial and physical health, too

Financial health will always be a factor in your overall wellness.

“Providers need to feel that they're valued. And I mean valued as a provider, but also valued financially,” he says. “If you feel like you can pay back your loans, that you can take care of your family — that definitely helps. We don't talk about that enough.”

If your financial picture feels like it’s standing in the way of overcoming burnout, consider how you’re advocating for yourself — Andy underlines that there’s a provider shortage, and that mental health providers have tremendous value in the market today.

“I'm biased towards Headway of course, but you should find companies that value you and are working for you,” says Andy. “If you can find that, lean into that because it'll just help you build that confidence."

Getting good sleep, movement, and nutrition can also play a role in battling your burnout. As an example, Andy cites the reduction in stress hormones and increase in “good” hormones that come from regular exercise. But it’s not just about the outcome — making time for your physical health has a ripple effect.

“It’s this idea that not only am I taking care of myself, but I deserve this,” says Andy. “My body deserves to feel good. I deserve to feel rested. I deserve to be healthy.”

4. Restore yourself with something outside of work

The hardest thing to make time for on your road to burnout recovery might also be one of the most important: Something joyful, restorative, and fun.

“All of us have things we value that are important to us,” Andy says. “For me, it's piano — I have to find the time during the week to play. For some people, it’s knitting. For some people, it’s art. For some people, it’s traveling."

“It doesn't matter what it is, that thing that keeps you ticking and gives you energy — you need to make space for that.”

5. Above all else, give yourself grace

“I think there’s a fantasy that we always need to be on or amazing,” says Andy, “and I don't think that's true. I think sometimes you can be a good enough provider.”

On those days, your self-care investments — therapy, sleep, knitting — might not make you feel amazing. But they make you feel good enough. And that’s ok.

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