Ever notice yourself getting a little more irritable than normal? Finding it difficult to interact with colleagues, clients, and even family or friends? Struggling to find empathy and patience for others? This could be the result of therapist burnout. Yes, even therapists get burned out and need to take a step back in order to take care of our own needs.
Therapist burnout happens when an individual’s psychological resources are overpowered by the demands placed on them. It is an extreme kind of exhaustion that can result from working with particularly challenging populations .
Not only does burnout cause us to simply feel terrible, but it also contributes to job dissatisfaction and poor job performance. Further, it can lead to frantic job searches, and, at the extreme end, it can result in ethical violations, which may have professional repercussions for the therapist – and may harm the client.
Graduate students face unique pressures as a part of the typical doctoral experience, including isolation in projects of indeterminate length, disproportionately little pay for excessive amounts of time and effort, and supervisory relationships that can result in the success or failure of a graduate degree.
Graduate students also bear the increased responsibilities of adulthood, such as copious amounts of debt from student loans, providing spousal and/or family support, and the foreknowledge of an uncertain career trajectory following graduation.
Graduate students suffer high rates of mental health issues. A survey of graduate students at the University of California revealed that approximately 50% of graduate students suffer from some form of mental illness . Up to 87% of graduate students report feelings of anxiety, 68% feelings of depression, and up to 19% of cases report suicidal ideation .
Even students without clinically significant levels of depression or anxiety experience symptoms that hinder their work and quality of life.
Previously in this series, we introduced burnout and outlined symptoms of burnout to look out for.
In this article, we will discuss strategies that can help you prevent and treat burnout, so that you can continue to excel in your graduate program and future career as a behavioral health professional (or if you found this article and you’re not in the behavioral health field, these burnout tips can help you regardless of your field).
Oftentimes there are environmental factors (e.g., too few resources, too many responsibilities, too little time) that contribute to the experience of burnout; however, these factors are often outside of our control. Fortunately, there are things you can be doing to cope with environmental stressors and manage your response to frustrations.
Ideally, these strategies should be implemented early on to prevent burnout from occurring. However, even if symptoms of burnout have already reared their ugly head, these strategies can help break the cycle of behavior and thinking patterns that can produce and perpetuate the symptoms of burnout.
Burnout is believed to be coined by the psychologist Dr. Herbert Freudenberger who defined it as “failing, wearing out, or becoming exhausted through excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources” .
At times, graduate school seems synonymous with burnout – it is a multi-year, grueling process of hurdle after hurdle.
There is often a mentality in graduate programs that this “suffering” is a right-of-passage of sorts, an initiation that all therapists before us endured and overcame before entering into the profession.
However, the reality is that these expectations and this laissez faire attitude, when left unchecked, can produce burnout that is of detriment to not only the physical and mental health of graduate students, but also to their productivity and quality of work. Unfortunately, for many in the psychology field, this experience does not end with graduate school.
Do you ever feel like you are moving through grad school like a busy bee? Completely on autopilot?
Externship. Clients. Supervisors. Emails. Research. Class. Professors. Assignments. Dissertation. Family. Friends.
Sometimes it can all seem like one, big blur.
As graduate students in the mental health field, we are tasked with the challenge of helping others achieve mental wellness. However, in focusing on the wellbeing of others, we often completely forget to take care of our own emotional health.
“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.” –Ronald Azuma
Grad school is not meant to be a walk in the park. The responsibilities associated with being a grad student involve completing coursework, providing treatment, conducting testing/assessment evaluations, working on research projects, teaching courses, fulfilling practicum requirements, preparing for supervision meetings, writing your thesis, dissertation, and clinical documentation, and involvement in professional organizations (just to name a few).
These tasks are doable. They require a lot of work and time management skills, but they are doable.
But what if you have a spouse at home who expects your time and wonderful attentive nature? You won’t be the only one who’s Grumpy. Being a spouse requires an even greater commitment.
“We have to push ourselves beyond what we think we’re capable of.”
“I have three ‘bosses’ who all expect 100% from me, but I can’t physically give 300%. I feel like I can’t accomplish enough. It’s never enough.”
“I’m scared out of my wits. I live in panic mode all of the time. I just want more stability.”
“I’m just waiting for someone to figure out that I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I spend so much time working, and thinking about working, that I have no time for enjoyment.”
These statements were not made by clients. They were not spoken in a counseling session, or at a support group. These are statements made by doctoral students during group supervision, after being prompted to speak about their successes of the semester. These statements certainly don’t highlight successes. Rather, they speak to feelings of stress, anxiety, hopelessness, imposter syndrome, and fear. These statements speak to mental health concerns.
Self-care. Everyone in our professional and personal lives talks about it, but it’s easier said than done, right?
It seems we all intend on going to the gym, spending valuable time with loved ones and enjoying those extra moments of our favorite television shows, but sometimes things get lost in translation. And we may find ourselves yet again buried underneath a mountain of work with little hope of accessing our original intent.
So, what’s the remedy? There are lots of resources available to us, but perhaps if we set aside some time to build our self-care plan, it is less likely to crumble under stress.
Graduate students and early-career professionals know how challenging, nay, grueling our work can be without a good night’s sleep. With all the demands of practice, coursework, family matters, research, and so forth, how can we hope to squeeze in a solid 8-hour sleep session?
Furthermore, how can we fall asleep when our minds are racing through that seemingly endless list of responsibilities and deadlines? We toss and turn and check our phones, remembering that each waking moment is wasted rest time.
All of us (well, hopefully all of us) try to practice good hygiene by bathing regularly, brushing/flossing teeth, and so forth. Yet, few of us try to practice good sleep hygiene.
Between running studies for your research, trying to get enough clinical hours, classes, comprehensive examinations, supervising undergraduates, lab meetings, teaching assistance-ships, and many other graduate school demands, it is sometimes a great accomplishment to squeeze in a few moments for lunch.
There is a general tacit agreement amongst graduate students and oftentimes, their supervisors, that achieving work-life balance is hard enough given the demanding schedules of graduate school; but achieving work-life-and-family balance can feel near impossible. Although it may be challenging, it is not impossible.