As we sit, day after day, listening to people's stories of pain, conflict, struggle and trauma, we cannot help but be affected. At times we can get drawn into client's processes and dramas. At other times, we can feel overwhelmed, perhaps swamped with too much work and pressure from the environment. The risk of burnout is significant unless we engage and commit to some radical self-care.
Burnout occurs in the face of chronic stress when we have given too much of themselves, and we become emotionally and/or physically exhausted by our work. We can temporarily lose our empathy and compassion (sometimes called compassion fatigue). Research has shown that psychotherapists are at a particularly high risk of vicarious trauma as they are often exposed to traumatic stories. Survey research by Sodeke-Gregson, Holttum & Billings (2013), for example, has shown that 70% of therapists were at high risk of secondary traumatic stress.
Research following the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the risk of burn out was increased when people worked from home. These responses became amplified when individuals lost the support of understanding workplace colleagues. Also, as the boundaries between home and work became blurred, it was hard to take ‘time out’ and personal spaces (previously seen as a place of comfort and relaxation) became associated with trauma. (Tehrani et al, 2020)
The following questionnaire might help you identify some stress points and if you are at risk of burn out.: https://persometrics.ch/en/burnout_questionnaires (Note this quiz is just for interest and educational purposes.)
If you are feeling burnout (and I'm checking into myself as I ask this of you!), then here are six steps which may be helpful:
1) Take a good look at your daily diary. Is there any way to reduce your work load or the pressures on you? Can points of intensity be evened out or balanced better? If you find yourself unable to do less, then examine your motivations. Have you fallen into some less helpful habitual patterns of seeing to others (or rescuing them) ahead of yourself?
2) Consider your work-life balance overall. Have you given yourself enough time for self-care, hobbies, quiet time, chilling...? How about your social life? Does it need an injection of fun and variety?
3) Would it help to activate more support systems? Perhaps you need to up the supervision support you get for a couple of months? Would a few sessions of therapy offer some further nourishment? Or are there any friends/peers who can provide some support and help you carry some of your work burden?
4) Check into yourself - mindfully. What is your body telling you? What are you needing right now? What has triggered you if you're feeling extra vulnerable?
5) Offer yourself some compassionate tender loving care. Would a daily meditation practice of slow breathing or, alternatively, some active exercise help to relax you? What else can you do to help you regulate emotionally?
6) Have a good look at what you are doing within sessions with clients. Are you getting caught up in their stress/distress and traumatic stories? Are you being pulled into confluence and losing your sense of self and groundedness? Perhaps you are too empathetic? Might it be helpful to step back slightly in the therapeutic relationship? Perhaps this is something to explore in supervision?
Sodeke-Gregson, E., Holttum, S., & Billings, J. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress in UK therapists who work with adult trauma clients. European Journal Of Psychotraumatology, 4(1), 21869. doi: 10.3402/ejpt.v4i0.21869.
Tehrani, N., Colville, T., Janet Fraser, J., Breslin, G., Benna Waites, B., Kinman, G., Reeves, S., Kate Richardson, K., Hesketh, I., Wortley, R., Grant, C., Kwiatowski, R., Steele, C., & Thomson, L. (2020). Taking trauma related work home: Advice for reducing the likelihood of secondary trauma. British Psychological Society.