Recognizing Burnout in Yourself and Others

Mental health awareness is on the rise. More people are contacting mental health professionals and seeking treatment for themselves or their family members. The stigma surrounding mental health issues is being addressed by multiple national campaigns and organizations. These are all steps in the right direction. But, what happens when mental health professionals or caregivers feel themselves getting burnt out with the stresses and difficulties of their job? Is there anywhere for these individuals to turn? Thankfully, clinician and caregiver burnout is also being addressed and recognized. Starting right here at Inpathy Bulletin, we are starting the conversation about caregiver burnout with the goal of increasing awareness of the significance of mental wellness of mental health professionals and caregivers. Our campaign, “Mental Health Starts with Us: Mental Health Care for Mental Health Professionals” focuses on the importance of mental health and the mental wellness of mental health professionals. You can find more information on our Inpathy #StartsWithUs site at https://inpathy.com/startswithus/.

A few years ago when we’d search for “burnout” on Google images, photos of cool cars in a fiery cloud of dust would appear. Although occupational burnout may certainly feel like you’re stuck in a cloud of dust spinning in circles, it is now an issue that is more heavily researched and recognized. Now, photos of tired people in suits with their head lying on the desk appear as well as individuals drowning in paperwork. There’s even an image of a woman taking a hammer to her laptop. So, what exactly is occupational burnout and how does it evoke these feelings in people?

Burnout is typically characterized by emotional exhaustion and a decreased sense of self-efficacy due to job-related stressors. These feelings of extreme stress and depersonalization can affect individuals in all professions, but feelings of burnout are typically more prominent in those who work closely with mental health disorders, like therapists or caregivers. Burnout is recognizable by various physiological and psychological symptoms and signs. Individuals who experience burnout may feel extremely stressed, tired, and exhausted by their workload or work setting. They may feel callous towards their colleagues or work itself. Additionally, they may internalize their work as a large part of their identity, and when they feel burnt out may spiral into negative self-beliefs. Conversely, those who do not experience burnout do not harbor lasting negative feelings toward their work or clients. They have a decreased level of emotional exhaustion and do not internalize their work as much as those who experience burnout.

If you recognize these signs in colleagues or other mental health professionals, it can be helpful to gently confront them with your observations. It is important to be compassionate about the difficulties and hardships of their particular job. Caregivers or therapists can take great pride in their work and profession, so news of observable burnout signs may be disappointing. There are many ways to help colleagues (or even yourself) if you find symptoms or signs of burnout arise. It is most helpful to catch these feelings as soon as possible as burnout stress can accumulate quickly. (Remember it is often unethical to contact any board or organization about your concerns about another colleague depending on the license and specific board.)

What do you do when you recognize symptoms or signs of burnout in colleagues or yourself? One study researched the effects of harmonious and obsessive passion. Harmonious passion can be described as “willed, controllable job involvement where work is seen as important and yet not all-consuming”. When a worker has harmonious passion for their work, burnout is less common. In contrast, obsessive passion is linked to higher rates of burnout. Obsessive passion is when an individual internalizes their work into their identity. This may occur when the job has secondary gains, such as performance-based self-esteem or approval of coworkers. If you recognize symptoms of burnout in yourself or signs of burnout in others, it can be useful to remember the difference between obsessive and harmonious passion. What kind of passion do you have for your work? If you are finding you internalize your work as a large part of your identity and feel insensitive and impervious towards your work or peers, you may decide to lessen your workload, take up more hobbies outside of work, or seek therapy. Individuals with harmonious passion toward their work make conscious choices and become increasingly better at it as they gain more resources.

One wonderful way to combat feelings of burnout is utilizing a mindful and acceptance based approach. Engaging in a mindfulness practice can lessen feelings of burnout and increase use of mindfulness skills. The burnout symptoms alleviated with the introduction of mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based approaches, even when the initial burnout was very high. Many apps, like Headspace and Calm, can help introduce you to a mindfulness practice, or you can choose to seek out a therapist who specializes in it.

Burnout is exhausting, frustrating, and challenging. Caring for those with mental health issues, trauma, and severe mental illness is rewarding, yet difficult work. It is important to take precautions to ensure symptoms of burnout are kept at bay. This fact is not important just for the therapist or caregiver; it is essential for the wellbeing of their clients or patients. Learning to say no, not internalizing work as an essential part of identity, and self-care techniques, such as taking up additional non-work hobbies, can all be beneficial tools to avoid burnout.

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