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Life as a provider

Therapist burnout: Signs, causes and how to prevent it

An abstract illustration to represent burnout; looks like a painting that is weathered and cracking.

It’s a common phenomenon in helping professions, but work-related burnout can feel debilitating.

Is work feeling extra difficult lately? Maybe you’re extra exhausted at the end of the day and feeling anxiety about doing it all again tomorrow. Perhaps you’re finding less meaning in your work of supporting clients, or it’s been tough to feel emotionally connected with them. In any of these scenarios, it’s possible you’re experiencing therapist burnout. 

While it’s a common phenomenon in helping professions, work-related burnout can feel debilitating, and it may begin to impact areas of your life outside the office. Luckily, you can take some simple but essential steps to keep burnout from affecting you and your work. 

Below, learn more about the potential signs and causes of therapist burnout, what you can do to prevent it, and how to manage it when it arises.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a term referring to the physical, mental and emotional depletion due to repeated stress in the workplace, says Danielle Tucci, a private practice therapist who often treats healthcare providers and other therapists struggling with burnout. 

“Therapists are tasked with being present and supportive to their clients during their most vulnerable times or in states of significant distress,” Tucci says. “As a result, sometimes vicarious trauma can occur, the emotional impact of exposure to traumatic stories and experiences of others, or compassion fatigue.”

Additionally, many therapists are employed in high-stress work environments such as hospitals, crisis centers, or large agencies where there is high demand to provide services to as many clients in need as possible — and often clients with higher severity. Operating at this high level can oftentimes feel unsustainable, which may lead to burnout.

“There is also an increased demand for therapists, especially following the pandemic, which has placed a strain on the mental healthcare system,” says Tucci.

Signs of therapist burnout

Burnout isn’t a clinical diagnosis, Tucci says, so there aren’t official symptoms like there are for conditions such as depression and anxiety. That said, burnout may result in symptoms that look like these things, such as exhaustion or persistent worrying. At work, the experience of burnout as a therapist may present with the following signs: 

  • Feeling overwhelmed by work 
  • Reduced interest or pleasure in your work 
  • Reduced empathy for clients
  • Hoping a client cancels so you can have a break 
  • Falling behind on administrative tasks like notes or billing 
  • Less engagement in sessions, leading to feelings of further disconnection 

These behaviors may in turn cause guilt and shame — maybe you feel like you’re failing at your job or guilty about not helping clients as much as you could. To overcome the burnout cycle, you’ll have to find ways to decrease your stress levels when possible and, at the same time, increase your resilience, or your ability to manage your stress when it arises.

Causes of therapist burnout

The nature of helping professions can increase the incidence of burnout. But some factors can increase the likelihood you’ll experience it at some point: 

  • Taking on too many clients 
  • Working with clients in urgent or emergent situations
  • Being isolated, or not having enough support from peers or a therapist of your own
  • Feeling a lack of recognition for your work from peers or managers
  • Feeling ill-equipped for your responsibilities, whether clinically or administratively

How to prevent burnout

It’s not always possible to avoid burnout altogether, but you can take steps to minimize its impact in your life. 

1. Build your support network

As a therapist, it’s important to be connected to trusted colleagues or mentors for support. Joining supervision groups or peer consultation can be a helpful outlet to process challenges of your work, says Tucci. Your support network also extends to your personal life. “Being intentional about connecting with family, friends, and other loved ones can help increase positive emotions and buffer against the negative impact of stress and burnout,” she says. 

2. Be mindful of time boundaries

Burnout is often an indicator that your boundaries are off, especially with time. Maybe you notice yourself overscheduling or accommodating appointments outside your typical work hours. Maybe you’re nervous about taking time off or you’re skipping meals or breaks during your days. “These are all helpful areas to check in around daily,” says Tucci. 

3. Maintain emotional boundaries, too

Your emotional boundaries are also key in preventing burnout. At work, Tucci says being selective about the types of cases you’ll take on can help keep overwhelm at bay. Outside of work, try to focus on relationships that feel balanced and encouraging — people that fill your cup rather than deplete you.

Dealing with burnout

If you’ve already reached the point of burnout, it’s not too late to take control of your stress levels and feel more like yourself. Start with a healthy dose of self-compassion.

“It may be instinct to judge ourselves and wonder, ‘how can I even be a therapist if I can't even manage this for myself or question our competency?’” says Tucci. Be gentle with yourself and your limitations, the same way you would with a struggling client. 

Some practical ways to deal with burnout include: 

1. Go back to basics

Prioritizing basic self-care measures during overwhelming times can help you get back to a healthy baseline, Tucci explains. This may include catching up on sleep, eating regular, nourishing meals, and finding time for movement and exercise. 

2. Re-evaluate your boundaries

Re evaluating your boundaries is also helpful in trying to restore a sense of stability. “This might mean clearly defining working hours and your limitations as it relates to client caseload and the severity of cases on your caseload,” says Tucci. 

3. Advocate for yourself

Discussing your current experience with a colleague or supervisor could allow for collaboration on a plan to best support you in the workplace, which in turn can help you better support your clients. If you work in private practice, consider hiring some extra help for administrative tasks. 

4. See a therapist

Sometimes the helper needs help, and that's OK. “Engaging in therapy yourself is a perfect way to prioritize your mental health and revisit some skills and strategies to more effectively manage your current stressors,” says Tucci. 

Need more ideas for how to deal with burnout so you can better care for yourself and your clients? Check out our resource on self care for therapists.

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