8 Signs of Therapist Burnout

The job of being a therapist or clinical psychologist can be extremely rewarding, especially when you see the positive changes in your patients’ lives as they make their way out of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. However, because this line of work requires people to delve deeply into the most painful aspects of their patient’s psyche, it can also be highly exhausting and emotionally taxing. If you feel like you are burning out, this guide will cover what signs to look for and what you can do to prevent lasting damage to your mental health and career.

What Is Therapist Burnout?

Therapist burnout is a phenomenon in which therapists feel emotionally exhausted with a lack of enthusiasm for their work. They report that it takes a great deal of effort to do their job and maintain healthy boundaries with clients, and many feel there isn’t enough time in their schedule to complete all their work. In extreme cases, therapists may even become depressed or contemplate suicide. It’s important for therapists and mental health providers to know when they’re experiencing professional burnout, as it can seriously impact online therapy sessions if left unchecked.

Signs of Therapist Burnout

As mental health professionals, you’d think that therapists would easily recognize when they’re experiencing job burnout symptoms . Unfortunately, that’s not typically the case. Because of their passion for the job, therapists often overlook the early signs of burnout, pushing them aside so they can continue focusing on their clients. But if burnout isn’t addressed early in its development, it can become worse over time, eventually leading to anxiety, depression, and stress-related illnesses. To help you better recognize therapist burnout, here are some of the most common signs to look for:

1.   A Sense of Relief When Clients Cancel

Feeling relived when a client cancels their session is one warning sign that your job is starting to burn you out. It could mean that you’re not making time for outside interests and have built your entire schedule around being available for clients, but it could also be that working with people all day is getting tiresome. If canceled sessions cause a sense of relief, it might be time to reevaluate your workload.

2.   Experiencing a Decline in Empathy

Another unfortunate sign of therapist burnout is a decline in empathy. When you’re feeling burned out by your job, you may have a hard time being compassionate and understanding toward others, including your clients. You might also find it difficult to relate to your clients’ struggles as well as you used to, which in turn makes you feel sad that this is occurring. Therapists losing their sense of empathy may not seem fair or logical, but it’s a common sign that burnout is starting to set in.

3.   Difficulty Sleeping

If you find yourself sleeping less than usual or have difficulty falling asleep, it could be because you’re dealing with burnout. One reason burnout impacts sleep so heavily is that our body naturally produces cortisol, a stress hormone, in response to things like high-pressure situations at work. High levels of cortisol disrupt sleep and make us prone to waking up throughout the night. Of course, there are many other factors that can affect how well we sleep, but consistently experiencing restless slumber could indicate you’re in the early stages of therapist burnout.  

4.   Feeling Mentally and/or Physically Exhausted

Being mentally or physically exhausted day in and day out is definitely a warning sign that you are trying to do too much, pushing yourself past your limits. The unfortunate truth is that being overworked or stressed out can cause chronic emotional exhaustion; this can happen even if your job doesn’t require extreme exertion. If you find yourself feeling mentally or physically exhausted throughout the day, you may be experiencing therapist burnout.

5.   Constantly Being Distracted During Sessions

Stress can also make it hard to concentrate and focus on work, which distracts you from clients' needs. Distractions during sessions are normal and nothing to worry about, as long as they don't happen too often or lead to anxiety. If you’re struggling to maintain focus on your clients during sessions, you may be on the road to therapist burnout.

6.   Negative Emotions

Stress is a normal and necessary part of life. The problem is that when we're stressed-out, our emotions are heightened. If we experience ongoing, unrelenting work related stress, the result is an increase in negative emotions like anger, fear, frustration, sadness, and anxiety with a corresponding decrease in positive emotions. If you find yourself feeling down or out of sorts for longer than normal periods of time, it could be a sign of burnout.

7.   Physical Illness

When you’re burned out, your body pays a price. When faced with chronic stress, your body doesn’t have time to recuperate. This can cause you to experience headaches, intestinal issues, inflammation, high blood sugar, ulcers, and/or high blood pressure. Once you get burned out enough to develop a physical illness, this compounds the problem and makes it even harder to recover. If you start to experience repeated physical issues, take notice—you could be in the early stages of therapist burnout.

8.   A Loss of Purpose

Losing your sense of purpose is also a clear indication that you’re experiencing therapist burnout. When you first started working as a licensed therapist or mental health worker , you were probably full of optimism ready to make the world a better place by helping one person at a time. But lately you’ve started wondering whether you should do something else with your life or if you made a mistake in becoming a therapist. The bad news is this sign often shows up early in burnout, but it doesn't have to be permanent if you take steps to counteract your stress.

Tips for Preventing Therapist Burnout

Being a family therapist is a tough but rewarding career. The unfortunate reality is that burnout is a common phenomenon among therapists. The good news is that burnout isn’t inevitable—it can be prevented. Here are a few tips to help keep you from developing therapist burnout:

Refuse to Take Work Home

It’s not uncommon for therapists to take their work home with them. When you’re passionate about helping people, you’re willing to do almost anything to improve their lives—including risking your own wellbeing. But dedication has its downsides.
When you take work home, you’re constantly blurring the lines between your professional and personal lives. Instead of using your time off to relax and recharge, you continue to focus on your clients’ needs, which can lead to overwork and burnout. Take steps to prevent this by keeping work separate from your personal life.

Engage in Regular Self-Care

As a therapist, it’s easy to put the needs of others before your own. Unfortunately, doing this consistently can create the conditions that cause burnout. To keep yourself from getting burned out, make sure to engage in regular self care for counselors and therapists. A few examples of good self-care practices include sleeping at least seven hours every night, taking regular breaks at work, making time to do something you enjoy, and practicing mindfulness exercises for anxiety. It may feel self-indulgent at first but engaging in regular self-care will go a long way in preventing burnout.

Hire Some Help

While burnout is common among all therapists, it’s even more prevalent for those who own a private therapy practice. Therapists who operate their own business are required to juggle a wide range of responsibilities that other therapists don’t have to contend with. For example, they have to market their business to find enough patients, bill for insurance, schedule appointments, keep track of expenses, etc.

To streamline your business and help prevent burnout, consider hiring some help to take care of non-therapy tasks. An excellent place to start is with Advekit, a service that matches people seeking therapy with a licensed professional counselor in their area. Using Advekit reduces the need to advertise, so you don’t have to worry about marketing your business. They also bill for out-of-insurance benefits, which removes another task from your to-do list. In addition to using Advekit, you could also hire an outside bookkeeper or virtual assistant to assist with other business-related responsibilities.

See a Therapist

Just because you’re a therapist doesn’t mean you can treat yourself. You wouldn’t tell your clients to do that, would you? No, you’d explain the value of professional help. A therapist can provide you with perspective and some practical tools to keep you from hitting a wall when times get tough. So take your own advice—visit a therapist regularly to help manage different types of stress and develop ways to prevent burnout.

Take More Time Off

In today’s busy society, we have a tendency to overschedule ourselves and avoid taking time off. Unfortunately, working too much has negative consequences and often leads to emotional fatigue and physical exhaustion, a precursor to burnout. In fact, people who work more than 50 hours a week are three times more likely to become burned out than those with more reasonable schedules. While you may feel compelled to work long hours so you can help more people, you’re no help to anyone if you burn yourself out. To prevent this, make a point of scheduling regular time off during the week in addition to taking vacations every year.  

Therapist Burnout: Common but Preventable

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated, and drained at work, don’t be surprised—you’re not alone. Professional burnout is unfortunately becoming more and more common in today’s workplace, as therapists experience chronic workplace stress and become overworked and stressed by the pressure to care for their clients. Burnout can be debilitating and severe, so it’s important to do everything you can to avoid it. Luckily, there are several things you can do to prevent job burnout before it happens to you. Try implementing one or more prevention burnout strategies and see how much better you feel.