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How to Deal with Burnout as an Occupational Therapist

If you’ve landed on this article, you may have Googled something along the lines of “Occupational therapist Burnout,” or “Occupational therapy burnout.” If this is the case, you’re probably feeling the “burn” of the stressful demands of our career field as well as the healthcare system in general. You aren’t alone: burnout in the occupational therapy world is becoming more and more prevalent with seemingly ever-increasing demands, not to mention the long-term mental health effects of living and working through a global pandemic.

That’s why we wanted to created this handy guide to help you manage those creeping burnout symptoms and increase your work/life satisfaction.

Typically when we think of burnout in the healthcare system, we probably automatically think of seasoned, veteran occupational therapists who have been practicing for years. That’s not always the case, though. Burnout can strike anyone. Even people who have only been working in the field for under a year have had years of stressful schooling building up to their career.

There are many compounding factors that can facilitate burnout. Thankfully, though, there are plenty of techniques that we as OT practitioners can use to deal with the challenges we face. We’ll go into those in depth for you here. 

But First, Why Does Burnout in Occupational Therapy Happen?

Burnout can be defined as the fatigue or exhaustion that comes from dealing with prolonged stress. Burnout can be brought on by any number of causes. The stressful nature of working in the occupational therapy field just makes burnout more likely. Productivity demands, difficult clients or families of clients, emergency healthcare situations, and burdensome supervisors can all add stress to an already taxing job.

Every day, we exert ourselves more and more (physically and mentally) as we naturally try to give more of ourselves and help our patients. It also has to be addressed that, as occupational therapy practitioners, we rarely apply the basic self-care principles we tell our clients. Prioritizing our own self-care is so important for our own well-being.

Along with the tips in this article, we also have a companion article to help you get on track with this that you can check out here: Self-Care Tips & Strategies for Occupational Therapists and Students

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Doing Damage Control

The first step in dealing with burnout is limiting the factors that might be causing the problem. Granted, some things may be out of your control. However, you might have more in your power than you may think. The key principles to managing stress are very similar to the very energy conservation principles we share daily.

Planning ahead will help us to avoid potentially stressful situations. Do you find that you rush around in the morning getting ready? Simplifying your morning routine can put you in a better frame of mind and start your day off right. Are you regularly stressed by the productivity demands of your workplace? Think like an OT! Do an occupational analysis of your workday and find the areas in which you could improve.

If your documentation takes longer than you feel it should, try changing your environment. Find a calm, quiet place (or the closest you can find at work) and try documenting there.

Finding Support

Burnout can’t always be handled alone. It is be important to establish a support system. Because burnout doesn’t just come from one source, it makes sense that it can’t usually be handled in just one way.

Having a trusted friend (or therapist) that you can talk to about general problems at work – things like co-workers, supervisors, etc. – will be helpful. When problems with specific clients come up, HIPAA does prevent you from sharing specific details so be mindful of that when discussing your situation. Within the workplace, having a good support system can help both you and your co-workers.

Another way you can find support and prevent burnout is by having a mentor, especially in your early years. A mentor doesn’t have to be someone you work with, it just needs to be an experienced therapist that can help you come up with ideas, overcome problems, and deal with the challenges that arise. They can help you talk through obstacles in patient recovery and provide assistance with other OT specific problems.

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Changing Habits

Burnout becomes a repeating cycle that only gets worse without some kind of intervention. This cycle can be interrupted through key changes in your routine.

As occupational therapists, we know just how connected the mind and the body are. When we’re dealing with burnout, we probably don’t have the inner motivation to make a change. The support system we mentioned above can really help here. A friend can help us to get physically active. We shouldn’t have to be told how good exercise can be for our mental and emotional health.

Proper diet and sleep are going to be essential when it comes to getting back to a normal, healthy routine. It will take discipline and active attention to get back into a normal routine.

Along with changing some lifestyle habits, you might even need to consider changing your job situation. Going from a full-time OT position to PRN OT can truly be a game changer for people. With the increased pay rate, you can work fewer days per week, as well as try out multiple settings to switch things up each week.

Working a few less days per week, and being able to take as much time off as I need, has really helped me ward off my own feelings of burnout. For more in-depth information about going PRN, along with the pros and cons, be sure to check out our PRN article, The Pros and Cons of Being a PRN Occupational Therapist.

Perspective

Another major factor in burnout and dealing with stress is perspective. As an example, take one difficulty facing those working in facilities with long term residents. It is likely the case that the same clients come on and go off caseload multiple times a year, and this can go on for years. It can be tough seeing the same people deal with the same problems for years and not really see much progress.

However, notice how a different perspective can change everything. Over the years, you get to become close to these people you work with; you know their problems. Even though you may not see much difference through your therapy, you know that you may be the only thing stopping them from regressing further.

Many times, these clients don’t have family living nearby or regularly visiting them, so you are in a unique position to help them and be an important person in their lives. Even though they may never express it, they might view you as family. With that viewpoint, what we do goes from being a chore to being a valuable service we offer.

Escape

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After we have spent so much time trying to become an occupational therapist, we want to focus on advancing in our careers. It can be tempting to devote all of our time to helping our clients and doing all we can to make a difference through OT.

But we have to remember, we are human like anyone else. We still need to recharge our batteries and recover just like anyone else. You probably have some vacation time available shortly after starting any new job, so don’t be afraid to use it!

In fact, our treatment and effectiveness as therapists will improve if we give ourselves an appropriate amount of time for self-improvement.

Catching Burnout Early

The first step leading to burnout is stress. Stress and burnout are two distinct things. While stress affects everyone, burnout is a more serious and concerning problem.

Some of the distinct characteristics of burnout include emotional distress, disconnection from things that you enjoy, and detachment. Stress can show many warning signs, including lowered energy, anxiety, and more sensitive emotions.

When those first warning signs start to appear, it’s be important to act quickly. Along the same line, if you start to see a friend or co-worker dealing with these problems, speak up. Say something and then let them vent if needed, because that might make all the difference in their mental and physical health.

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Have you dealt with burnout as an occupational therapist or COTA? What strategies have helped you personally? Please share your thoughts, experiences, and anything that has helped you in the comments below. 

 

Additional Helpful Readings:

7 Reasons Why You Might Be Feeling Burned Out As An OT (My OT Spot)

Occupational Therapy Burnout: The Ugly Truth No One Talks About (Core Medical Group)

Occupational Therapy Burnout—What It Is and How to Fix It (OT Potential)

This post was co-written by Michel Moninger, COTA/L and Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L. It was originally published on June 19, 2019 and last updated on February 3, 2024.

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