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Recovering from Burnout as a Therapist or Counsellor

To become a therapist or counsellor, enthusiasm for your area of expertise and a drive to help others is vital. Whether you lead your own practice or work within a wider organization, this role is an achievement that represents the culmination of years of training and diligent hard work. However, sometimes we can find that our work has turned from a rewarding challenge to an insurmountable burden - and that our empathy and enthusiasm has begun to ebb away.

There can come a point in our professional lives where every day is a bad day, where we find it increasingly difficult to relate to others. While we may perceive these experiences as a personal and professional failure, (and one that may be corrected by working harder) they are in fact all signs of burnout.

Coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, burnout describes a state of physical and emotional exhaustion particularly related to occupational roles. Freudenberger defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results”, and he observed that it was particularly prevalent in those working in caring professions.

Burnout can appear when:

  • You experience long term stress in your role.

  • You have worked in a physically/emotionally draining role for a long time.

  • Your efforts have failed to produce the results that you expected and you feel disillusioned.

The symptoms of burnout include:

  • Losing your professional confidence and feeling less capable.

  • Finding no joy or interest in your work.

  • Feeling overwhelmed and unable to deal with your workload.

  • Experiencing a profound sense of exhaustion.

  • Having difficulty sleeping and becoming prone to physical symptoms, such as frequent colds.

The Effects of Burnout

In her book, The Cost of Caring, psychologist Professor Christina Maslach (who is known for her pioneering research on this subject) explains that burnout is a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment.” Educational psychologist Professor Thomas Skovholt went on to outline the impact this can have on the professional confidence of counselors, therapists and health professionals, stating that “we can feel less intensity in offering hope for the demoralised client, and a loss of a sense of the work being meaningful.”

It is perhaps in this loss of professional confidence that burnout can be most damaging. Therapists need to feel secure in their ability to help their patients and clients, or risk becoming overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety - something which can then lead to avoidance behaviours and spiralling negativity. In addition to this, burnout can have a significant impact on our productivity and performance, with those experiencing burnout making more cognitive mistakes in daily life than their healthy counterparts, as well as performing worse in attention tasks.

This issue is far from uncommon - according to The Guardian, Half a million people in the UK suffer from work-related stress, which is a leading cause of job burnout. Fortunately, if you recognise the symptoms of burnout in your own daily life, there are steps you can take to recover.

The Steps to Burnout Recovery

Burnout is rarely a sudden development. Even counsellors and therapists (who tend to understand self-care) find it easy to neglect their own needs, prioritising instead their work commitments. Over the months and years, even small oversights in self care can build into something unsustainable, eventually resulting in burnout.

You may have found that a previously manageable caseload has become overwhelming, due to a client presenting with particularly acute needs, or that you find it difficult to assert professional boundaries and habitually overcommit yourself. Whether you are experiencing the initial symptoms of burnout or have found yourself at a crisis point, taking action to change your circumstances is vital.

Identify the “why”:

We live in a culture that celebrates (and demands) an extreme dedication to work - where family time, hobbies, relaxation and even sleep are considered fair sacrifices to ensure we operate effectively in our professional lives. In order to recover from burnout, it’s important to understand why you have become vulnerable to it - simply going on holiday and then returning to the same working patterns won’t solve the underlying issue.

One easy way to better understand the stresses in your life is to consider five things that you find draining, annoying or difficult on a daily basis - even if they seem silly and mundane. This way, you can form a picture of your everyday experience and establish the areas of you personal and professional life that have preceded burnout. As an example, your five whys may look like this:

  1. I have been particularly emotionally affected by the circumstances of one client.

  2. I feel as if I’m not longer benefiting anyone through my work.

  3. My partner has become ill, increasing my burden of “life admin” and causing worry.

  4. I am frequently late home due to bad traffic and I never have enough time to enjoy lunch.

  5. I never have any time to myself.

Create a strategy for reducing or removing that source of stress:

To recover from burnout, you need to make your own health and wellbeing your main priority. This can be easier said than done, but until you are well, concerns such as growing your practice, getting extra training or even renovating your house will need to be put on hold. Outside of maintaining your personal relationships and caring for your children, your overriding focus has to be you - even if that means taking some time out of other areas of your life if they are not contributing to your recovery.

Of course, you should visit a doctor if you have become overwhelmed by burnout. Professional intervention may be necessary to make you fully well, with both cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy found to be effective in the reduction of burnout symptoms. Outside of a medical setting, however, these are some self-help tips you can apply to move on from burnout.

1. Create emotional boundaries. In her book Help for the Helper, practitioner Babette Rothschild, suggests varying the intensity of empathy in sessions as a protective measure. While it’s vital for the therapeutic relationship to be empathetic to your clients, vicarious trauma is a big contributor to burnout in health and wellbeing practitioners, and you must find ways to protect yourself while helping others. There is a helpful list of tips here which you can use to safeguard your own wellbeing.

2. Devise a collection of professional “pick-me-ups”. When you know you are seeing a challenging client or have a difficult task to do, make sure you have time for something you enjoy or find relaxing afterwards. Scheduling in self-care is a great way to ensure you actually do it, even if it as simple as making room for half an hour to enjoy a hot drink, without distraction. Tweak your schedule so you can get home earlier, or enjoy a full hour of lunch, and keep this sacrosanct - as a practitioner, you should try not to let internal pressure dictate unhealthy working practices.

3. Consider meditation, art therapy, journaling or other therapeutic action. Self-care actions such as this will give you a break - both literally and figuratively. It’s often perfectionists who are most prone to burnout, and through meditation (or a similar habit) you can find some relief from negative self-talk. Meditation is particularly helpful because it allows your mind and body to rest on a profound level, which is extremely important when relaxation has been neglected for a extended period of time. Even it’s just twenty minutes a day, meditation has been associated with brain changes that could help you cope with stress and lessen anxiety.

Give yourself time: It’s important to give yourself time to recuperate - especially if you’ve hit crisis point. You may find it’s months before you feel functional again, and perhaps even longer to be fully recovered. While you should believe that you will get better, remove any expectations on yourself to be “back to normal” in a set timeframe. You will find that, one day soon, the world will look brighter and you’ll enjoy your work again, you just have to give yourself the permission to go at your own pace.

Author's Bio


Holly Ashby, a wellness writer, works with the London meditation centre Beeja, who help people deal with burnout and stress-related issues through mantra meditation.

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