Therapist Burnout: How Can I Prevent It or Recover from It?

By Dr. Laura Chackes, Psy.D.

The rates of burnout among mental health providers is becoming a significant concern. While burnout rates can vary widely depending on factors such as location, practice setting, and individual circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic has added additional stressors to most mental health professionals.

Understanding Therapist Burnout

Therapist burnout is more than just feeling tired after a long day of work. It’s a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion brought on by prolonged exposure to the emotional struggles and traumas of clients. This phenomenon can creep up on even the most dedicated therapists, and understanding its causes is the first step toward combating it. Here are a few of the common causes:

  1. Emotional Overload: Therapists often find themselves absorbing the intense emotions of their clients. Over time, this emotional overload can lead to burnout.
  2. High Expectations: The expectation to provide solutions and make progress in every session can be overwhelming. When clients don’t improve as expected, therapists can feel like they’ve failed.
  3. Lack of Boundaries: Poorly defined boundaries between work and personal life can lead to constant stress and a feeling of being constantly on call.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Therapist burnout manifests in various ways, both physically and emotionally. Some common symptoms include:

  1. Physical Exhaustion: Constant fatigue, headaches, and a weakened immune system.
  2. Emotional Drain: Feeling detached, cynical, or emotionally numb towards clients.
  3. Reduced Empathy: Difficulty in empathizing with clients due to emotional exhaustion.
  4. Loss of Motivation: A decline in enthusiasm and passion for the profession.
  5. Increased Irritability: A shorter temper and decreased tolerance for stress.

Preventing Therapist Burnout

Preventing therapist burnout is not only essential for the therapist’s well-being but also for the quality of care they provide to clients. Here are some common ways to prevent it:

  1. Self-Care: Prioritize self-care by practicing relaxation techniques, setting boundaries, and taking regular breaks.
  2. Supervision and Support: Seek supervision and support from colleagues or mentors to discuss difficult cases and emotions.
  3. Continuous Education: Stay updated with the latest therapeutic approaches to keep sessions fresh and engaging.
  4. Client Load Management: Avoid overloading your schedule with clients. Quality over quantity is crucial.

Healing and Recovery

If you find yourself already deep in the throes of therapist burnout, there’s hope for recovery.

  1. Take a Break: Sometimes, a short break or vacation can do wonders to recharge your mental and emotional batteries.
  2. Seek Therapy: Most therapists see their own therapists, and it’s more important now than ever. We all need a safe space to process our emotions, set realistic goals, and check-in regularly for accountability.
  3. Reevaluate Career Goals: Reflect on your career goals and consider if a change in setting, specialization, or approach could rekindle your passion.
  4. Support Groups: Joining support groups for therapists facing burnout can provide a sense of camaraderie and shared experiences.

Therapist burnout is a real and pervasive issue in the mental health profession, but it’s not insurmountable. By recognizing the signs and taking proactive steps to prevent and address burnout, therapists can continue to provide the invaluable support their clients need. Remember, just like we tell our clients, self-care and seeking help for ourselves are not signs of weakness, but rather the keys to long-lasting, fulfilling careers.

The therapists at The Center for Mindfulness & CBT regularly engage in individual and group activities to help prevent burnout. We each dedicate a portion of our income to use for our own self-care each month, as well as hold weekly case consultation and yoga for all of the staff. Several times a year we also get together outside of work for social and restorative events. 

We’d love to invite any mental health professional in the St. Louis area to our first ever Provider Burnout Retreat on Friday, September 22nd from 9am to 3:30pm at our office in Creve Coeur. You will earn 5 CEUs while practicing mindfulness, making collages, doing yoga, and learning and practicing embodied movement. Coffee, pastries, lunch, refreshments, and a swag bag will be provided. So, if you’re ready to relax, unwind, and learn new strategies for yourself and your clients, we’d love for you to grab one of the last few spots.