It’s common for mental health professionals to experience burnout as a result of the incredible demands and stress they face in their job. Research by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that between 21% – 61% of mental health practitioners experience signs of burnout at some point in their careers. The profession is exceptionally susceptible to emotional fatigue, which is a large contributor to burnout.
Recognizing early warning signs is critical in preventing the detrimental effects on both personal well-being as well as professional performance. Only when you see the signs will you be able to address and correct them — thus, understanding the common causes of therapist burnout is key.
Learn the signs of therapist burnout and how to prevent or overcome it here.
Common Causes of Burnout in Therapists
Therapist burnout is a big deal in the world of mental health professionals. It can lead to decreased job satisfaction, reduced productivity, and in extreme cases, can even affect the quality of care you can give clients. Knowing the common causes of burnout is crucial if you hope to prevent it or use intervention strategies. The following are factors that might contribute to therapist burnout.
Constantly empathizing with your clients’ emotional pain can affect your well-being.
Hearing about the traumatic experiences of a client can cause secondary traumatic stress in your own life.
Your job has high emotional demands. Those demands can leave you feeling drained and exhausted after your workday.
Demonization by clients
Occasionally, you’ll work with a client who projects their negative feelings onto you. Over time, this can be hurtful and demoralizing.
It’s common for therapists to feel a constant pull between client sessions, paperwork, administrative tasks, meetings, and more. This need to continuously multitask can make it difficult to focus on one thing at a time.
Inability to “shut off” at the end of your day
Mental health professionals often find it challenging to separate professional responsibilities from personal life.
Board investigation stress
If you’ve ever faced a complaint that resulted in a licensing board investigating you, you know how incredibly stressful the experience is. It’s understandable if it contributes to burnout.
Administrative task overload
The large amounts of documentation and paperwork required in clinical practice can suck up valuable time that you’d rather be spending with patients or on your own self care.
Slow progressing or resistant-to-change clients
Working with a client who’s slow to progress, resists your professional opinion, or has difficulty with change can be frustrating and discouraging.
“Burnout develops from having too much work or too many responsibilities. Lack of social support can also contribute to burnout. Taking on more than one can handle in family relationships can add to burnout. Vicarious trauma occurs when a healthcare provider working with a client takes on the emotions and feelings of that client who has experienced trauma. Compassion fatigue is a slow developing behavior where a healthcare provider starts to not care about themselves or others because they have become numb to having compassion skills. When this numbness occurs, a healthcare professional has nothing else to provide for their clients.”
– Talkspace therapist Famous Erwin, LMHC,LPC
Signs of Therapist Burnout
Being aware of the warning signs of therapist burnout will let you take proactive measures to avoid or manage it. Common signs that indicate you might be a burnt out therapist include:
Emotional exhaustion: One of the most apparent signs of therapist burnout is feeling emotionally exhausted, drained, or overwhelmed by the daily stressors you face.
Cynicism: Developing a negative attitude about clients, colleagues, and the profession itself clearly indicates counselor burnout.
Feeling like you’re not successful: Experiencing a decreased sense of accomplishment or feeling like you’re ineffective in helping your clients with their mental health issues can be a sign of burnout.
Vicarious traumatization: Suffering from emotional fatigue from constant exposure to a client’s traumatic stories or experiences might trigger burnout.
Unhealthy work-life balance: Struggling to maintain a healthy balance between your work life and the demands of your personal life can signify that you’re taking on too much on without appropriate boundaries to help establish balance.
“Burnout occurs when an individual is not implementing self care. Common symptoms of burnout are headaches, fatigue, intestinal problems, sleep disturbance, and poor appetite. One who implements a regimen of self care has a positive chance of avoiding burnout. As a practicing therapist, I follow a healthy regimen of exercise, quiet time, and good nutrition. As a result of implementing a self care regimen, I do not experience burnout or its symptoms.”
– Talkspace therapist Famous Erwin, LMHC,LPC
If you’ve noticed any of the above signs recently, it might be time to self-assess. Remember that recognizing burnout and caring for yourself is critical to doing your job as effectively as possible.
How to Prevent and Overcome Burnout
Once you’re able to recognize the different burnout symptoms you may be experiencing, you can take several steps to address the burnout you may be feeling and learn to manage ongoing stressors. Engaging in self care, setting healthy boundaries, maintaining an ideal therapist work-life balance, and getting support when needed are all ways to effectively manage burnout.
Techniques to prevent counselor burnout include:
Prioritize your physical well-being
To maintain emotional resilience and professional stamina, prioritize your physical well-being. Regular exercise, paying attention to your diet, and maintaining healthy sleep habits are all effective in burnout recovery and prevention.
Practice self care to support your emotional well-being
One of the best ways to prevent burnout is by prioritizing self-care. Making time for relaxing and rejuvenating activities is essential to your mental well-being. Incorporate therapist self-care practices into your daily routine and engage in hobbies or interests that bring you joy or fulfillment. Use mindfulness techniques like meditation or deep breathing exercises to manage stress levels throughout your day.
Maintain a healthy work-life balance
A healthy work-life balance prevents therapist burnout by ensuring you have enough personal time outside of your professional responsibilities. Though the occasional client emergency may come up, try to stick to your scheduled work hours and prioritize your dedicated personal time as much as possible.
Establish clear client boundaries
Set clear boundaries with clients about how you’ll communicate, when your session times start and end, and your cancellation and payment policies. Clear and healthy boundaries help ensure everyone understands their respective roles in the therapeutic relationship and minimize potential conflicts due to miscommunication or unhealthy expectations.
Cultivate meaningful relationships with peers, family, and friends
Establishing solid social connections will provide you with a critical support network you can rely on during difficult times. For example, you might consider joining peer support groups or attending conferences and workshops geared toward helping mental health professionals with similar experiences and challenges.
Assess personal strengths and needs
Be sure to take adequate time to reflect on your strengths and areas for growth as a therapist. Identifying resources that can help you enhance your professional skills is crucial — you might look for additional training or certifications, pursue higher education opportunities, or explore new therapeutic modalities and approaches.
Continuously learn and grow professionally
To avoid falling into the burnt out therapist trap, stay current with all the latest research, trends, and best practices in the mental health care field to stay competent and effective in your work. Try attending events, online tutorials, or classes that can deepen or broaden your experience and understanding. These are also valuable opportunities for you to learn from other professionals in the field.
Seek consultation and peer support when needed
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or experiencing emotional fatigue due to ongoing professional stress, don’t hesitate to seek support or help from colleagues. You can join peer support groups for guidance and encouragement or connect with a mentor to share experiences with someone who understands your profession’s unique challenges. Support can alleviate feelings of isolation and offer valuable insight into how to manage difficult situations that might contribute to burnout.
“Seeking professional help from a Talkspace therapist or a therapist of one’s choice is beneficial because it provides an individual with resources that assist them with gaining the tools to alleviate or manage symptoms that are a result of experiencing burnout. It’s important to have a support system.”
– Talkspace therapist Famous Erwin, LMHC,LPC
Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance with Talkspace
To ensure you can give your clients the best care possible, it’s important to take the time to prevent or address signs of therapist burnout. If you’re stressed, burned out, and looking to find better work-life balance, consider trying Talkspace. Our online therapy platform offers numerous benefits for providers that relieve the burdens the stress that can often come with a private practice.
Talkspace therapists enjoy a flexible work schedule that suits their needs, and they don’t have to deal with the expense or overhead that private practices demand. They also get competitive pay and don’t have to market themselves.
Being a therapist is a challenging, yet rewarding career, but if the demands of being a therapist are all-consuming, it’s time to draw your own boundaries and seek help.
1. Staff PR and P. Research roundup: Burnout in mental health providers. https://www.apaservices.org. Accessed June 8, 2023. https://www.apaservices.org/practice/update/2018/01-25/mental-health-providers.
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