Therapist burn-out is a major problem in our field. As therapists, we give until it hurts. And hurts it does. There are studies revealing that therapists can even get secondary PTSD from the work we do. Of course, we don’t need studies to tell us this. Just common sense will tell you that being exposed to very real human suffering for at least 6 hours a day, 6 days week, will take an enormous emotional toll on a person. Therapists as a group are also overworked and underpaid. I don’t know any other profession where the value of the product is this high but the compensation is so low. Due to this, therapists are highly at risk for becoming cynical. The work we do may be priceless, but the price the therapist pays is very high indeed.
Keeping all this in mind, self-care for therapists becomes very important. Surprisingly, there is very little information available out there on what therapists can do to avoid burn-out. Some therapists even see self-care contrary to the mission of a therapist. They want to care for others, not themselves. However, I hope all of you realize that self-care is caring for others. You will not survive even five years in this profession unless you are taking some measures of self care. Even if you do manage to stay in, you risk becoming one of those apathetic therapists you used to complain about when you were new to the field. Keeping that in mind, I’ve provided some tips for self-care for therapists:
1. Keep work at work: This may be hard considering how many therapists work out of their homes; me included. However, bringing work home with you is the fastest path to burn-out. Do your work during your office hours. If you don’t have enough time to do that, you’re seeing too many clients. Plain and simple. I know that wasn’t the answer you wanted to hear, but having personal time to yourself is essential for preventing burnout. Doing paperwork until 11pm will send you to an early retirement.
2. Keep a professional distance from your clients: This suggestion is going to be controversial I’m sure, but I’m going to include it anyways. Although therapy in itself is a very intimate act, problems can arise for the therapist who gets too close. Many of my clients I can see how in another life we could have been good friends and I enjoy our time together, but I leave it at that. When they achieve treatment goals, therapy is terminated and our time together ends. You have to accept that your clients are not your friends and they never will be. There are also dangers of over-identifying with your clients that could cause you to develop similar problems as they. Giving clients your cell phone number and letting them call you at any time is also a bad idea and I would recommend against it. Having loose boundaries doesn’t make you a better therapist, it makes you a burned out therapist.
3. Teach clients what to do if there is an emergency: When I tell other therapists that I haven’t had a client call me in “crisis” in years, they often assume it must be because I have easy clients. The truth is, my clients have very challenging problems, the difference is that I make crisis prevention a major part of my work with them. From the very first session I start teaching the client how to handle emergencies on their own. We also do a lot of preventative work. Since client emergencies are often the most stressful for therapists, eliminating them is very helpful. I start by giving my clients a magnet with all sorts of mental health hotlines on them. I then explain how and why the client should use them. These magnets are very useful and not expensive to have made.
4. Get out in nature: Now that the weather is turning around, make sure to get out there! Many studies have shown that being exposed to nature has both a physically healing effect (Yes, seriously) and a mental / emotional effect. This is such an easy one for all of us to take advantage off. I can personally vouch for the healing powers of being out amongst nature. Try to get outside at least once every work day. It definitely helps.
5. Exercise: This is one we advise our clients on all the time, it’s time to practice what we preach! We know that simply exercising for 30 minutes 3 times a week has the same effect on our mood as a full dose of zoloft. I know that most of you probably cringed when you saw the word “exercise”, but it’s a myth that exercise has to be unpleasant. Just find a physical activity that you already enjoy and try to do it daily. For me, that’s hiking and swimming. What’s yours?
6. Nix the caffeine and alcohol: This will probably be another one you don’t want to do, but hear me out. Most therapists drink caffeine all day long and then finish the day with a glass or two of wine. We know that caffeine ultimately leads to increased anxiety and fatigue, and alcohol contributes to depression. Obviously, that’s not good if you are trying to avoid burn-out. I’ve found that I feel much better since I’ve nixed the caffeine and only have a glass of wine with dinner if it’s a Saturday night. Give it a try and you’ll see that I’m right.
7. Socialize: Spending time with friends and most importantly, spending time with people that don’t expect you to solve your problems, is a very effective way of avoiding burn-out. It can be very effective to spend time with people that care about your needs and welfare.
8. Take up a hobby that doesn’t involve therapy: It can be helpful to some aspect of your life that doesn’t involve your role as a therapist. Also, don’t forget to have fun and enjoy your life!