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Burnout in Psychologists: A Guide to Identify and Manage Work Related Stress

Psychologists are human too, and are not immune to burnout and work-related stress. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to stress. It can have a significant impact on your well-being and quality of work. Identifying and addressing burnout is crucial because it ensures we continue managing our well-being and the quality of our client's care.

How do I know if I'm in a state of burnout?

Burnout may appear in various ways but is usually characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a decreased sense of competence and productivity. Burnout and stress are related but different concepts. Stress is a normal response to a challenging or demanding situation, and it can be beneficial in short bursts because it helps you stay focused and alert. However, when stress becomes chronic, it can lead to burnout.

Some signs and symptoms of burnout to look out for include the following:

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • Irritability

  • Decreased motivation for attending or engaging in work

  • Decreased job satisfaction

  • A sense of detachment from your clients and work

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, muscle tension

  • Rumination about clients

  • Increased cynicism

In extreme cases, it may lead to:

  • The use of alcohol or substances to cope

  • Suicidal ideation

Because of the work we do, we are at high risk for developing burnout. If you are a provisional psychologist or an early-career psychologist, your risk is even higher. I like to talk about burnout from two angles: prevention and management strategies. Let's talk first about management strategies. Let's say you're already in burnout; prevention strategies may be less helpful. So what can you do?

1. Consider whether there is any risk of harm to your clients if you continue practising. You always need to consider their well-being first. If you are finding it difficult to concentrate, be empathetic, or provide your usual level of service, consider allowing yourself a break. How long will depend on you and the severity of your symptoms. It may be just a week, and it could be longer than that. Typically, burnout will not resolve itself while you continue to work in the same way that triggered it. Consider using your break to rejuvenate and plan how to prevent this from happening again.

2. If you feel capable of continuing to work, I recommend seeking supervision. Supervision will allow you a safe space to decompress and talk about your client-related issues and concerns with a senior in the field. It should also guide you on self-management, reasonable caseloads, and working with complex presentations. Psychology can be an isolating profession, mainly because of confidentiality and our inability to go home and confide in our loved ones about our day. Supervision is an effective and ethical way of addressing this issue.

3. Consider your workload and client presentations. Here are some of the questions I recommend you ask yourself to better understand the factors that contributed to your burnout so you can know how to address it.

Are you currently working with a lot of complex, suicidal, or trauma clients?

Is your caseload beyond 5 per day?

Are you seeing clients back to back with little time for breaks in between?

Are you working with clients beyond your skill set and constantly feeling 'stuck'?

Are there contributing factors from your personal life that you need to address?

Are your clients' issues triggering your own unresolved traumas?

Do you have unreasonable workplace KPIs, or are you expected to complete additional administration work on your own (unpaid) time?

Have you been making time for pleasurable activities?

If you realise this is an issue with the types of clients you are seeing or the number of clients you see, I suggest reducing and balancing your caseload. Seeing 20 clients per week with Anxiety Disorders is not the same as seeing 20 clients who are suicidal or have complex PTSD. If you believe it could be something more personal, relating to things happening in your life outside of work or that something has been triggered inside a session for you, I would suggest seeking therapy. Getting therapy as a therapist can be humbling, enlightening, and incredibly beneficial.

How about prevention strategies moving forward?

1. Set Realistic Goals and Boundaries

Setting realistic goals and boundaries is critical for preventing burnout. Establish clear expectations for your work that prioritise your well-being. This may involve setting limits on your work hours and caseload and taking breaks throughout the day to recharge. Additionally, ensure you are creating boundaries between your work and personal life. Reduce time spent doing work outside of work hours, even if it's as innocent as responding to an email.

2. Create a Self-Care Plan

I like to think of self-care as a preventative rather than a management tool. Due to the high risk of burnout in our profession, you must be engaging in activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being. This includes the basics such as exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, practising mindfulness or meditation, and seeking social support.

It should also ensure that you spend time outside work engaging in pleasurable (non-work-related) activities. Many of us find this balance tricky, particularly when juggling multiple things outside of work. My best advice is to schedule everything. We schedule our work hours, so why not plan for our downtime and pleasure activities too? Scheduling means there is an intention, you have thought about the best time to do it, and you are prioritising it.

3. Seek Supervision Regularly

Seeking supervision is both a preventative and a management tool. Good supervision can guide you with the right strategies to manage your workload effectively and appropriately and help you prevent burning out.

In conclusion, psychologists are not immune to burnout just because of our expertise in mental health. Our work puts us at high risk for burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Burnout happens after prolonged periods of stress and may result in feelings of detachment, low mood, insomnia, and ineffective treatment practices. Managing our self-care and putting a plan in place to prevent burnout is essential for our well-being and the well-being of our clients. If you are experiencing burnout, don't hesitate to seek supervision or therapy to get support. This doesn't make you an ineffective practitioner; getting support means you will be better able to better manage yourself moving forward and help you prevent any unethical mishaps.


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