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Mental Health Provider Burnout: Hazards, Symptoms, and Recovery

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It most often occurs when individuals feel chronically overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet the constant demands of their profession. Researchers have found that anywhere between 21 percent and 26 percent of mental health practitioners experience significant signs of burnout (Morse et al., 2012).

It is unfortunate that mental health work has become increasingly associated with professional burnout. However, given the very real and pervasive difficulties of the profession, the risk for burnout is higher than in many other professions. In this article, we will explore potential causes of burnout, signs burnout is occurring, and ways to prevent and recover from burnout.

Hazards of the Profession

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma can occur after exposure to traumatic stories while witnessing the fear, pain, and terror associated with the client’s experience. Vicarious trauma symptoms can mirror traumatic stress itself. In a field where a significant portion of the work is helping individuals in immense psychological pain who share their traumatic stories, it is no wonder clinicians are at risk for such a phenomenon. 

Feelings of Inadequacy

I once heard a colleague describe, “I feel like I am expected to treat a stab wound with a bandaid.”  This sentiment can be common among counselors who are expected to treat complex trauma or mental illness while having unmanageable caseloads and within the confines of time allowed by insurance. Another difficult aspect of the work that can lead to feelings of inadequacy are the lack of tangible outcomes we can see as a result of our labors. Changes in mental health can occur slowly, and often we do not get to see the long-term effects of our work. 

Fear and Worry

Working with individuals who may be experiencing suicidal or homicidal ideation often is a source of immense worry.  Even when we follow the correct assessment strategies, many of us are left after sessions with a pit in our stomach. We may wonder if we missed anything and if the client is, in fact, safe. These worries can follow us outside of work, with intrusive thoughts occurring at unideal times, such as, when we are with our friends or family.

Hallmark Symptoms of Burnout

Although signs of burnout can vary by individual, below are some common manifestations. It is important we are aware of them, so we can attend to burnout as soon as possible.

Lack of Empathy: Frequently feeling annoyed, disconnected, and apathetic to clients’ sufferings.

Somatic Complaints and Physical Changes: We know as counselors that stress does not only affect our emotions, but can also have serious impacts on our physiology. This can lead to changes in sleep and appetite. Having increased unexplained physical ailments, such as headaches or gastrointestinal distress can surface as well.

Self Medicating: Using drugs, alcohol, or excess food to cope with internal distress after work is also an indicator. 

Unrelenting Exhaustion: Tiredness that is not helped by sleep and is pervasive throughout your day.

Isolation: Finding yourself avoiding colleagues, friends, and family. Feeling that all interactions with others are burdensome.

Burnout Prevention and Recovery

Stay Connected

No one understands the stress of this profession like other mental health professionals. Reach out during times of heightened stress and maintain regular consultation on difficult cases is a important part of preventing burnout (Viehl et al., 2017)

If you are experiencing burnout, you are likely not alone. Becoming burned out is not only a painful experience but also potentially an isolating one. Many clinicians may experience feelings of shame regarding burnout.  Why am I feeling this way if many of my colleagues seem to be doing fine?  Staying quiet about our burnout only functions to maintain this shame. Talk to a trusted colleague or supervisor. 

Celebrate Wins

Although we may not be able to see the full impact of our work, we need to regularly celebrate our therapeutic successes to ward off burn out  (Rupert et al., 2015). Take time to notice and reflect on when a client makes progress. In the same way we encourage our clients to notice and celebrate success, we must also follow suit.

Stay in Touch with Your Holistic Identity

Develop and nurture your identity outside of your work. Develop hobbies, relationships, and sources of joy that are independent of your career. You are more than just a counselor, and this reality can serve you when feeling overwhelmed at work.

When Possible, Be Selective about Your Clientele

Choose a population that you feel effective working with and interested in. When we feel engaged at work, it can increase our sense of purpose and satisfaction. Choose a population whose struggles do not too closely mirror your own. It is hard to hold space when a client’s issues are too close to your own personal struggles.

Take Breaks

Many of us work in fast-paced environments, and we hear sayings like, “There are not enough hours in the day to get done with all the work.” While this may feel true, neglecting your own need for rest will not fix this. Take lunch! Take breaks! If you find this difficult, I recommend scheduling them. We are much more likely to follow through with something that is on our calendar.

Not only are breaks essential during your day, but they are also essential during your year. Take vacations when possible. Vacations can be a powerful reminder that the world continues even when we are not at our desks.

Get Your Own Mental Health and Medical Care

As mentioned above burnout can have significant impacts on our mental and physical health. When you begin to notice negative changes in your psychological or physical well-being, find professional help to address your concerns. As mental health professionals we know that stress can show up in many ways, and when it goes untreated symptoms can worsen. Seeking help is a powerful way to acknowledge and show compassion for our own humanity. We are humans after all.

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