Mental health professionals enter the field for a variety of reasons. Some are interested in improving the lives of their individual clients whereas others are more concerned with improving systemic and societal ailments.
Some of us are drawn to the richness and diversity found within the human psyche. And then there are those few who thought psychology, counseling, or social work would bring riches through thriving private practices–I’ve yet to meet one of these rich private practitioners.
Many of us are able to maintain focus on why we entered the field. Our days are tough, but they are filled with intrinsic reward. However, there are many of us who have lost that focus and struggle to find meaning and purpose in what we do.
The concept of professional burnout is just that–a concept–unless you have experienced it.
A Harsh Reality
For a sizeable number of helping professionals, the possibility that burnout will occur becomes a harsh reality and reminder that the work we do can take a toll. Regardless if the burnout is fueled by work with trauma or abused children or because of a high stress, high demand or toxic environment, the result is often the same–a sense of defeat and loss of purpose.
As with most problems in life the first step is to gain awareness. In keeping with this reality, below are seven signs that you may be on the verge of or experiencing professional burnout.
1. You look forward to patient cancellations and no-shows. Granted, those early days when you trained as a psychotherapist and anxiously awaited the arrival of your patients was a unique experience. It is difficult to believe that as years go by that you will maintain that same level of enthusiasm and eagerness.
But, if you find that your mood improves when a patient cancels then you are dealing with something a little more serious than diminished anticipation.
2. You have a difficult time focusing in session. Your mind can wander for a variety of reasons. You may be preoccupied with stress at home or work or maybe you didn’t get enough sleep the night before which makes it difficult to focus. Or, it may be an ominous sign that you have lost interest in your patient’s stories and in the midst of professional burnout.
3. You are calling in sick more frequently. Running out of sick time within the first quarter of the year could very well be because of an extended personal or family illness. It could also be a sign that you no longer feel connected to your job or clients.
In many cases, an increase in sick days is directly related to job stress.
4. You are becoming more frustrated and impatient with your clients. As psychotherapists, there are some patients we just do not like. We may respect them and their experiences, but for some reason we cannot seem to connect emotionally with them.
We also get easily annoyed with them and become impatient as they talk about their experiences with us. This reaction can happen for a number of reasons. One of those reasons may be that our job has taken too much of a toll on us.
5. You talk negatively about your patients. It is no secret that some psychotherapists possess a dark humor. It is often attributed to the difficult work we do and written off as a way to reduce stress and manage the emotional material we are at risk of internalizing as a result of our work.
The reality is that it may also be a sign that you are no longer able to attend to your patients’ needs. As a result, your guilt is turned into anger towards your patients.
6. You are depressed. Psychotherapist are not immune to depression. Hopefully, we are more aware of its symptoms, but we succumb to the blues from time to time like everyone else. If you find yourself in a dark place, consider what impact your work may be contributing to your mood in addition to other possible causes.
7. You are experiencing trauma like symptoms. The concepts of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma are familiar to most therapists. The research is clear in that those work with trauma patients are at risk of developing their own trauma symptoms.
If you work with people who have dealt with or are dealing with trauma, it may be worth your while to consult with a professional for your own mental health checkup.
Professional burnout is a serious side effect of working with people and their problems. In order to continue to meet the needs of your patients as well as your own needs, be on the lookout for burnout and get help if you see it.
You can learn more about professional burnout here.
Exhausted woman photo available from Shutterstock