A Guide to Burnout for Therapists

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a state that comes with long-term, unresolved stress that can negatively affect your work and your life in general. There are physical and emotional components, everybody experiences burnout differently but some of the common components are

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Low mood, feeling helpless/hopeless
  • lack of energy and feeling drained
  • Increased self-doubt
  • Feeling defeated
  • Dreading going to work
  • Procrastination
  • A reduction of empathy and caring responses
  • A decreased sense of accomplishment.

Each of these components falls along a continuum and you may experience varying amounts of each at different times during your working life. While there isn’t a specific, agreed-upon point where someone can be classified as ‘burned out, it’s vital we are reflective and self-aware so we can monitor ourselves for signs of burnout.

Why are Therapists at Risk?

Burnout can affect anyone, at any time in their lives, but I would argue therapists are particularly at risk. Despite its many rewards, the job we do may cause us to experience feelings of emotional exhaustion, while a degree is a normal part of life, left unchecked over time can lead to burnout.

As well as things like working with difficult clients or experiencing financial concerns associated with running a business, plus a myriad of other acute and chronic challenges and stressors, therapists are susceptible to vicarious trauma. The recent pandemic also placed mental health providers under unprecedented strain. Therapists were forced to personally navigate the pandemic while helping their clients through it at the same time. Lockdowns created additional stress around things like childcare and client/therapist safety including avoiding illness. Many therapists like myself had to pivot and start delivering therapy online for the first time, all while facing higher caseloads, waitlists and an increase in client distress levels.

On top of this, supporting ourselves as therapists and taking care of our own mental health is an area that’s neglected in much of our training. This means many of us only begin to understand how important these things are when their absence begins to impact us. I’ve written a free guide to help people build their resilience download your copy here Resilience guide, it is not just for clients

Burnout Warning Signs to Look Out For

  • Wanting to withdraw yourself from family, friends, and colleagues
  • Failing to take regularly scheduled breaks
  • Enjoying work less than in the past
  • Feeling bored, disinterested, or easily irritated by clients
  • Recent experience of life stressors such as illness, personal loss, relationship difficulties or financial problems
  • Feeling emotionally exhausted or drained after meeting with certain clients
  • Thinking of being elsewhere when working with clients
  • Self-medicating, overlooking personal needs and overlooking your health
  •  Finding work less rewarding and gratifying than in the past
  • Noticing a reduced empathy for clients
  •  Enjoying life less than in the past
  •  Experiencing repeated headaches and other physical complaints
  • Staring into space for hours, feeling detached or  unable to concentrate on work

Prevention is Better than Cure

As therapists, we use our minds and emotional landscape to be fully engaged and present with our clients to ensure we are listening and responding in a compassionate, non-judgmental and supportive way. While this is an honour and a privilege, life happens to us too. As I’ve said before, your mind is the tool you use for your work, so it’s important to keep it healthy. We maintain and update other tools in our practise, buy new books and upgrade computers, so we shouldn’t neglect our minds.

The good news is we are in the best possible position to manage stress and avoid burnout because we understand how the mind works and the skills needed to overcome any blocks or barriers.

To prevent burnout, here are some things I would encourage all therapists to do:

  • Take regularly scheduled breaks throughout your working day
  • Take regular time off and don’t bring work with you
  • Take your own needs to clinical supervision too.
  • Spend time with friends and engage in hobbies and interests unrelated to work
  • Exercise regularly and eat a nourishing diet
  • Limit your work hours and caseload
  • Participate in peer support, clinical supervision, personal psychotherapy
  • Have a system for checking in with yourself – reflective practice, journaling or mood checking
  • Regularly participate in relaxing activities (e.g. meditation, yoga, reading, music)
  • Ensure you have things you are looking forward to
  • Have regular CPD days

Awareness Is Key

It can be tempting to assume ignoring a problem will make it go away, but this simply isn’t true. Instead, we need to be more reflective and engaged with how we’re feeling both in and outside of work. As therapists, we know how important and powerful awareness of the mind can be but are we practising what we preach? While prevention is always best, when signs of burnout begin to develop it’s vital that we take a step back, reassess our current situation, and make the necessary changes in our lives to help us get back on track.

Useful Links

Download your free Resilience guide, its not just for clients

Self-Care for Therapists

3 Tips for Managing Work-Related Stress

Tips for Reducing Isolation in Private Practice

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.