This is the first blog post in a series of three that will focus on the human element of being a psychologist. There are inherent risks to one’s own mental and physical health when working in a profession where clients are psychologically (and often physically) unwell. Whether it be stress, burnout, compassion fatigue or vicarious traumatisation, psychologists needs to be mindful of the impact of working with individuals who are traumatised, depressed, anxious, or facing myriad other problems with their mental health and may even be at risk of harming themselves or other people.
This is a serious subject, because as psychologists, we are often drawn to a career as a helping professional because of aspects of our own personalities which desire to care for, and make a contribution to others. However, it is the very nature of constantly helping people with their problems and sitting in space where you give of your emotional energy for long periods of time that puts psychologists at risk of compromising their own well-being.
Too many times to count, I have been asked how I can possibly cope with “listening to people’s problems all day”. Firstly, I think it is very important to note that psychologists generally view their work as a great privilege. They draw inspiration from client’s stories and gain a great deal of satisfaction in assisting people to function more effectively to live full, rich and meaningful lives. The benefits of the work are many, and sometimes, I have even had the experience where a client’s story or way of approaching the world has been so profound as to alter the way I see the world. Who can argue with an experience that has the potential to happen every time you sit down in front of a client? Secondly, we are trained to be able to detach from the emotional distress of the client in order to be able to intervene in a therapeutic way without being distressed ourselves. But, when all is said and done, we are human too, and investing yourself in work that requires emotional connection with another human being can have costs. We call those costs “burnout”.
What is Burnout?
Burnout can often sneak up on you. It is insidious and can be confused for general stress that you may assume will pass. Ignoring the signs of burnout is dangerous for your personal functioning, as well as your professional functioning. According to the American Psychological Association (2014), the signs of burnout include:
- Loss of pleasure in work
- Depression (sleep or appetite disturbance, lethargy, negative mood)
- Inability to focus or concentrate; forgetfulness
- Substance use/abuse or other compulsive behaviours to manage stress
- More frequent clinical errors
- Less contact with colleagues
- Persistent thoughts about clients and their clinical material
- Intrusive imagery from clients’ traumatic material
- Increased cynicism, overgeneralised negative beliefs
- Increased isolation from or conflict with intimates
- Chronic irritability, impatience
- Increased reactivity and loss of objectivity and perspective in work
- Suicidal thoughts
There is a difference between general stress and burnout. Maslach (2003) distinguishes the symptoms of general stress, and the symptoms of the more pervasive and problematic state of burnout:
|Characterized by over-engagement||Characterized by disengagement|
|Emotions are overactive||Emotions are blunted|
|Produces urgency and hyperactivity||Produces helplessness and hopelessness|
|Exhausts physical energy||Exhausts motivation, drive, ideals and hope|
|Leads to anxiety disorders||Leads to paranoia, detachment and depression|
|Causes disintegration||Causes demoralization|
|Primary damage is physical||Primary damage is emotional|
|Stress may kill you prematurely, and you won’t have enough time to finish what you started||Burnout may never kill you, but your life may not seem worth living|
How many of these signs do you identify in yourself? It is very common for psychologists to be reluctant to acknowledge signs of their own suffering due to a focus on the client’s needs rather than their own, unrealistic expectations of themselves, and a general assumption that they will be able to cope at all times.
But, we are human too. Being consciously self-aware about your own needs and your personal and professional functioning will help you quickly identify any signs of burnout.
Next month, we will talk about the factors that contribute to burnout. In the meantime, take care of yourself first!
Dr Rebecca Ray
Clinical Psychologist, Writer, Happiness Enthusiast
More articles by Dr Rebecca Ray on My Health Career:
- Psychologists are human too – Burnout part 2
- Psychologists are human too – Burnout part 3
- The private practice psychologist – the wearer of many hats – by Dr Rebecca Ray
- The career progression of a psychologist – many roads lead to Rome – by Dr Rebecca Ray
Images courtesy Dr Rebecca Ray