Burnout affects therapists when there’s an imbalance in the amount of care given to others and the amount of care given to oneself. When you give so much of your time and energy to others, you may forget to check in with yourself about your own mental health. Even the best therapists don’t have an unlimited amount of emotional energy, so it’s important to understand what burnout is, why it happens, and how it can be prevented.
What Is Therapist Burnout?
Burnout is mental or emotional exhaustion that typically affects your professional life. It’s particularly common in helping professions, such as counseling, social work, and nursing. When you dedicate so much of your time to supporting and caring for others, it can start to feel like an emotional burden.
By nature, therapists are highly empathetic and compassionate people. They enter the field because they want to help others. However, this sensitivity also means that they can be strongly affected when listening to clients’ struggles. If you don’t take consistent measures to engage in self-care and protect your own mental health, you may be on the road to burnout.
Many therapists experience other challenges that can contribute to burnout as well. For example, if your caseload is too big, you may feel like you’re always behind on work or like you’re too busy to properly relax at the end of the day. If you work for an institution that’s underfunded, you may feel stressed from the lack of resources. Over time, the frustration with these problems can build up until you start to resent your work.
Burnout happens gradually, so you may not even notice that you’re experiencing it. Knowing the signs and regularly checking in with yourself will help you manage the problem before it takes a big toll on your life. Here are some of the most common signs of therapist burnout:
- Feeling unmotivated
- Dreading going to work
- Getting distracted when clients speak
- Feeling relieved when a client cancels
- A decline in empathy or compassion
- Becoming lax on client-therapist boundaries or the code of ethics
- Fantasizing about a career change
- Difficulty sleeping
- Physical or mental exhaustion
- Feelings of anxiety, impatience, or irritability
Unfortunately, therapist burnout has become even more common over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world navigates this crisis, most people are feeling more stressed and anxious than usual. Mental health professionals are very perceptive to the emotions of others, so many feel emotionally exhausted as they, their families, and their clients try to manage this challenge.
The pandemic has drastically changed the way therapists work, too. As stay-at-home orders took place throughout the country, most counselors started to work from home by offering telehealth sessions. This was a major transition, and the stress and pressure led to a noticeable increase in therapist burnout.
How to Avoid Therapist Burnout
Burnout can be a devastating problem. No therapist wants to lose their passion for their field, but the challenges can feel unmanageable. It is often possible to avoid burnout, though, with careful and intentional effort. Here are five ways to prevent therapist burnout during COVID-19 and retain your love for your career:
1. Separate Your Work and Personal Space
One of the biggest changes leading to burnout during the pandemic is the shift to working from home. Providing tele-therapy sessions from home can be difficult because it blurs the line between your work and your personal life.
Being able to disconnect from work and relax at home is critical for avoiding therapist burnout and staying in good mental health. When you work from home, it’s much harder to differentiate between work time and personal time. To prevent burnout, try to create boundaries between your job and your personal life.
If possible, work from an area in your home that’s dedicated to your job. Even if it’s one small table in the corner, having a separate space only for your work can help to prevent job-related stress from creeping into your personal space.
Try to set time-related boundaries, too. For example, you could stop answering non-emergency messages after dinner, or you could turn your work computer off at 5 pm. When you’re home all the time, your colleagues or supervisors may expect you to always be available. This makes it impossible to relax and recharge, though. Stick to a schedule for starting and ending your workday to avoid therapist burnout.
2. Take Time for Self-care
Self-care is the best way to prevent therapist burnout. Maintaining good mental health requires effort, and if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t have the emotional fortitude to support your clients.
Self-care involves your mental, physical, and emotional health. Small acts of self-care should be built into your daily routine to avoid burnout and stay well. However, this may be particularly challenging during the pandemic if your usual forms of self-care involve social interaction or spending time in public spaces.
Here are some examples of COVDID-safe self-care:
- Get plenty of sleep every night
- Drink water and eat healthy meals
- Spend time in nature
- Keep a journal
- Engage in a hobby like art, music, cooking, or gardening
- Watch a favorite movie or TV show
- Learn something new from a podcast, book, or video
3. Talk to Friends and Family
Social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic is a major concern for most people, and it may be a big factor in therapist burnout. Although you speak with your clients every day, the client-therapist interaction doesn’t provide the same benefits as catching up with friends and family.
If you’re feeling lonely while you work from home, call or video chat with your loved ones. Even a short conversation could lift your spirits and combat feelings of burnout. Try to talk about something other than the pandemic to feel some sense of normalcy.
4. Reach out to Peers, Colleagues, and Supervisors
Therapist burnout is not a new phenomenon. If you’re worried about experiencing burnout, you’re not alone. Your colleagues probably have the same concerns about themselves, so reaching out to them for support can help.
Others in the mental health field may have valuable suggestions for preventing or overcoming burnout. You could speak with trusted coworkers or supervisors, or you could look for online resources or therapist support groups.
5. Work with Your Own Therapist
Plenty of therapists also engage in counseling as a client. Therapists understand the importance of mental health, and they have emotionally-taxing jobs. Working with a therapist of your own can help you keep your mental health in check and avoid burnout while you support your clients.
Therapy is especially important if you have existing mental health concerns, which could affect your work performance and contribute to burnout. By tackling these problems in therapy, you improve your emotional well-being and become more resilient when you work with your own clients.
You could also address burnout itself with your therapist. Discussing your experiences with burnout in a private, nonjudgmental environment can be a great way to discover the root cause of the issue and find ways to cope.
Counselors do difficult work, but therapist burnout is preventable. By practicing self-care, connecting with others, and staying vigilant about your mental health, you can make a great effort to avoid burnout and remain happy in your field. Never be afraid to reach out for support. Burnout is a common concern, so there are plenty of valuable resources available.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy services for older adults. We address a wide variety of issues, including stress, grief, depression, and anxiety. If you or a senior loved one is interested in therapy, reach out to us today.