Q. What’s it’s like to be a psychologist experiencing burnout?
A. Speaking personally, initially it was quite a struggle experiencing burnout as a psychologist, because somewhere implicit in my decision to practice psychology (made at a young, immature age) was the notion that because I was fortunate enough to be raised in a loving, caring, environment, and had never experienced psychological difficulty before, it was me- the mentally healthy- helping those less fortunate than myself. As a result, I thought I was infallible, and probably took on more than I could swallow, again seeing myself as more robust than what I actually was.
Quite often in psychology people tend to be perfectionistic, but at the same time self-sacrificing, and in my experience I was often prioritising the needs of my clients over my own needs (eg. Working weekends, after hours, worrying about at-risk clients over the weekend and evenings, and also under-billing some clients).
To experience the truth, which was, anyone can experience depression, stress, and anxiety, was at least personally somewhat of a fall from grace. Once recognised however, of course it made sense. We are all human, and therefore we are subject to all of those human frailties, including mental health difficulty. And in a profession where we are repeatedly and regularly exposed to emotionally weighty, and at times, tragic or horrific narratives, we simply cannot ignore that our job will have an impact on our emotional wellbeing unless we put clear strategies in place to prevent that from occurring.
Q. Did you find it easy or difficult to identify the signs of burnout in yourself?
A. For me, the signs of burnout, which in hindsight were actually signs of stress and depression, were probably bubbling away for some time before I was able to fully cast light on them.
A colleague I did peer supervision with had mentioned almost 12 months previously that I should take a good four week holiday. It hadn’t occurred to me that in my first five years of full-time practice that I hadn’t taken a holiday longer than two weeks. But over time, I did notice that I had started some maladaptive behaviours. Stress-eating, drinking more than I should on weekends, procrastination, all started creeping into my lifestyle. I often had low energy, and was tired, but I ignored all the nagging signs.
The catalyst for me recognising that I was burnt out actually came in the form of a back injury which prevented me from working for two months, a time when I was able to see my mode of practicing more objectively. In that period I had to refer a large amount of my clients on to other therapists, which was a very hard thing to do. Initially I tried to persist and keep seeing a handful, but due to the injury I wasn’t able to sit through a full session and be able to concentrate for a full-hour. So I made the decision to refer clients on, and when I came back it gave me a chance to re-establish my pattern of operating.
Q. How did you go about managing your own burnout?
A. I managed my burnout by ensuring that my way of practicing was more sustainable. I thought if I’m going to be in this industry for another 30-40 years, I better get on top of things now. Keeping boundaries with myself and with my clients was a big part of that. Setting clear expectations of fees, session times, and modes of communication was integral to my approach. If I left work, I was no longer on the clock. If I was worried about an at-risk client, I made sure that all the right procedures occurred during the session. If a client requested a weekend or after-hours appointment, I would let them know that I was only operating within business hours.
In relation to the depression symptoms, I also sought assistance from a psychologist, which I would highly recommend to anyone. Some universities will strongly recommend this to their psychologists-in-training, however mine didn’t, which I think was quite neglectful. I started practicing mindfulness, exercising regularly, and using my time outside of the office more fruitfully.
My psychologist and I spent quite a bit of time talking about the personality profile of health professionals, and that if you are too self-sacrificing, or if the work is overly stressful, then we can repress our own needs for a period of time, which can then lead to a bit of a blow-out. Managing boundaries, and self-care strategies, can reduce the likelihood of that occurring.
Q. Can you tell us more about the psychological factors associated with burnout so that other health professionals might be able to identify if they are at risk of or are experiencing burnout?
A. Of course!
Q. What personal characteristics lead to an increased risk of burnout?
A. There are numerous personality characteristics that can lead to increased levels of stress, or burnout. As discussed above, being self-sacrificing, or neglecting one’s own needs is one such factor. Personality characteristics such as perfectionism can cause procrastination, which in another way can lead to burn out. Emotional sensitivity, and neuroticism, are other factors which may affect someone’s ability to work in professions where the work is emotionally intense as well.
Q. What external factors can lead to an increased risk of burnout?
A. Increased stress in any aspect of personal lives can increase risk of professional burnout as well. If we can think of any individual as having their own ceiling, or upper limit, for stress, than financial stress, relationship problems, studying, family conflict, health issues, could all stretch an individual thin enough to then start having difficulty coping in the workplace. Beyond that, work factors such as shift work, increased pressure or demand at work, and unrealistic deadlines or workloads can increase the chance of burnout.
Signs and symptoms of burnout could be considered the same as signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, or any other psychological disorder, including, but not limited to:
- Low energy
- Poor sleep
- Apathy towards the role/duties
- Poor concentration/forgetfulness
- Ruminating in an unhelpful way about the job
- Emotional reactivity
Sam van Meurs has worked as a psychologist at Canberra Clinical and Forensic Psychology for six years, specialising in family, criminal, and medico-legal assessments for the ACT Supreme Court, Magistrate’s Court, ACT Children’s Court, and the Family Court. He has been interviewed by Kidspot, Ninemsn Online, and Australian Women’s Weekly in relation to a range of psychological issues.
More articles on My Health Career:
- Psychologists are human, too – by Dr Rebecca Ray
- Advertising health services is about so much more than the AHPRA guidelines
- Varied response to the National Mental Health Commission’s Mental Health Services Report