Combating Professional Burnout in Practitioners and Caregivers

A few years ago, I was in my mid-30s and seemed to really be hitting my stride in a lot of areas of my life. I was working full-time in community mental health as a therapist with a part-time private practice on the side. I was happily married with two kids under the age of six, and owned property in a large city. Looking back at my life then, it seemed like I had everything figured out. 

But under the surface, things were different. After almost twenty years working in mental health, my passion for my work hasn’t wavered. But at the same time, I was finding myself feeling increasingly tired, detached, and unproductive. My unfinished case notes were piling up, and I had very little energy at the end of each day for other things I loved to do. Sound familiar? 

Recognizing Professional Burnout

Strange as it may sound, I responded to these feelings of professional burnout by actually taking on more work—which of course only made matters worse. At the same time, I tried ramping up my self-care activities, thinking that more yoga classes and massages would be enough to combat the burnout I was feeling. 

Unsurprisingly, neither of these strategies really worked. My loved ones started to express concern about me. Both my doctor and my therapist recommended that I take a break, an idea I was incredibly resistant to at first. I imagined taking a two-week break, and then coming right back to work. But my care team recommended I take at least six weeks of mental health leave. In the end, that six weeks turned into 14. 

It was incredibly difficult for me to admit to myself that this really was professional burnout. I had been trying to convince myself that I didn’t have the time to be burnt out. But believing doesn’t make it so—I was definitely burnt out. The entire time I was on leave, I was asking myself, “How did I get to this point? How can I prevent it in the future?” 

Finding Answers Among My Female Colleagues

To help me come to terms with what I was feeling, I went looking for answers anywhere I could find them. I tore through podcasts, online articles, and self-help books, but was left wanting more. The solutions to professional burnout offered by these resources seemed to just scratch the surface of what was happening for me. 

I started talking to other women in my life, and in doing so I realized my story was not at all unique. Many of the women I most admired, who were highly successful in their personal and professional lives, were all feeling the same way. They all seemed to feel the same helplessness that I did. 

So, I dove into the clinical research, and noticed there are very few practical interventions to prevent and cope with professional burnout. Meanwhile, we’re living in a world where workplace structures—plus external environmental and political factors—are actually making burnout significantly more likely for women, especially working women who are also caregivers. So in the absence of adequate interventions for me, and women like me, I made my own. 

A New Method of Care

In collaboration with my co-founder Dr. Julia Moore, I created the Behavior Elevation Academy to provide practical solutions for the prevention and management of burnout. We used existing research to fully explore the three spectrums of burnout, and what strategies make the most sense for each. 

We labelled the three spectrums as follows: 

  1. Energy to exhaustion 
  2. Involvement to cynicism 
  3. Feeling productive to feeling unproductive 

In a nutshell, by looking at where you fall on each of these spectrums, you can see how professional burnout is showing up in you, and to what level of intensity. In our model, the goal isn’t so much a diagnosis as it is to provide a pathway to self-exploration. We created a library of resources for professionals—including a quiz to explain each of these spectrums further—and to help people understand where they fall on each. 

Creating these resources helped me get a better understanding of what burnout actually is. They also clarified what I needed to do to really thrive in my personal and professional life. Self-care activities, like the yoga classes and massages I used to try to ward off my own burnout, are indeed the primary method to prevent and heal from burnout. But thriving isn’t just about engaging in tasks that are healthy or enjoyable. True self-care needs to extend into your mindset and be driven by your core values.

How to Thrive After Burnout

I was trying to fix my professional burnout by external means—not by changing my mindset. While the activities I chose were, and still are, a vital aspect of warding off burnout, deciding how I’m spending my energy and putting my own needs first has made the real difference. 

If you’re noticing burnout in your life, or are trying to be proactive in preventing professional burnout in the first place, here are some practical strategies that you can easily incorporate into your life. 

This is the THRIVE method for preventing burnout. 

T: Time alone

Time alone has been the number one self-care shift for me. This is especially important if you are a caretaker in your professional life, and even more so if you are a caretaker in your personal life as well. It’s easy to be so outwardly focused that you lose sight of yourself in the process. True time alone helps you to reconnect to yourself. 

I know first-hand how difficult it can be to find that time, especially when you’re trying to balance all areas of your life that need your time and attention. But it’s in your best interest to reevaluate your calendar and see where you can find even half an hour to be alone. Are you making the best use of your workday, or is there a way to restructure your schedule to leave you a free hour somewhere? Can you leave your office on your lunch break for a solo walk instead of eating at your desk? Even small moments can have a big impact. 

H: Help from others

As helpers, we often have trouble asking for help. But the mindset that we have to do everything ourselves can lead to you having too much on your plate. Think about what you can delegate and what you need from others—and then ask for it. 

R: Recharge

Recharging looks different to everyone, but it’s vital to figure out what boosts your energy and what depletes it. When we’re exhausted, we often go into auto-pilot and end up engaging in activities that actually sap our energy, like mindless scrolling through social media. Think about the activities that energize you, and prioritize time for those activities. 

I: Ideal day

While I was on my leave, I did a vision exercise where I pictured my ideal life and mapped out what an ordinary day would look like in that life. It provided great clarity for me from the little shifts I could make, like going for a daily walk, to bigger life changes like quitting my agency job and moving to full-time private practice. Once I could picture it, I felt empowered to actually make it happen. 

V: Values triangle

Identifying your core values and even narrowing it down to your top three can provide a great deal of clarity for how you move through your life. If it seems overwhelming to start from scratch, you can use a guided activity to help you focus on your efforts. Once you have a clear understanding of your values, you can adjust your workload or the activities you choose to spend time with to better align with them. 

E: Expectation adjustment

This is a lesson I need to learn over and over, especially in challenging times. Look at your expectations for yourself and reduce them. And then reduce them again. Get to the point where they feel uncomfortably low. This may feel counter-intuitive, but in my experience it’s been better to start from a place of low expectations and exceed them than it is to consistently feel like I’m failing myself. And the expectations you set don’t have to stay that way forever. As you move through feelings of burnout, you can adjust your expectations to feel reasonable for your mental state at that time.

If you’re feeling burnt out, you’re not alone. Particularly in the last year, rates of burnout among mental health professionals have sky-rocketed, and those numbers aren’t likely to decrease dramatically any time soon. Mental health providers—women in particular—have a difficult time prioritizing their own wellness or asking for the help they need. But some small shifts in your mindset can help make prioritizing yourself second nature—and can make a big difference in avoiding professional burnout. 

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