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Are You a Burned Out OT? You Aren’t Alone!

Oh burnout. Such a popular topic. Sarah even wrote about burnout back in 2017 (last updated June 2019): Why You Might Be Feeling Burned Out as an OT.

So what has changed in the past several years? Definitely not our level of feeling drained by our profession. If anything, this seems to be increasing as work-place pressures rise.

So the biggest question is, after spending huge amounts of money on an education in a field we get pooped out on in less than 10 years, what do we do about it?

Honestly, we have two options: take it… or leave it.

That sounds like what my mom use to say to me when I was a kid. “If you don’t like the option you have, either deal with it or find something new. Either way—stop complaining.” My son says it better: “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” (thank you daycare)! How’s that for laying it on strong?

Here’s the biggest question: how can we be happy in our jobs?

I’m starting to wonder sometimes if it feels like a “millennial” thing. Hear me out—how many people your age do you know that have changed jobs every two years? When I scope out others in the therapy realm on LinkedIn, so many display a revolving door of positions that seem to last two years or less. Are we unsatisfied with our career choice? Are we always looking for something better? Probably a combination of the two is the culprit.

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When I describe my job to healthcare outsiders, people are a combination of intrigued yet turned off. They think the idea of helping people is awesome, but working with people with chronic health issues sounds depressing.

As a devoted health professional, I see their point. Working with people overcoming illness and injuries is merely part of my daily life, and I have become used to that. But I can’t deny that it has made a huge impact on my life.

The emotional toll of healthcare is the primary reason I have had difficulty with my desire to remain in the field. And it wasn’t necessarily the actual caseload I had—I love my patients. What became more of an issue is an irrational belief that disease prevalence is much higher than it actually is, and that I inevitably would become one affected by one of these diseases.

Looking for Alternatives

I began seeking out alternatives to patient care around a year ago, after a rapid rise in work-related anxiety. My first panic attack developed over the course of a morning, pins and needles feelings rising up over my legs.

Convinced something was seriously wrong I left work and drove myself to the ER. I had no weakness, no loss of balance, and no true numbness. After the attending MD visited me and suggested that my sensations might be caused by anxiety, I calmed down and the sensations diminished. I contacted my PCP the following day, and thus began my roller coaster in work and health-related anxiety.

Over the next year I became hyper-aware of sensations in my body and had difficulty convincing myself I didn’t have MS, a GBM, a CVA, etc., etc. I enjoyed the work I did and the people I got to meet, but the anxiety of working around chronic illness all day was truly playing an emotional onslaught onto my personal life. I tried an SSRI, which did wonders but gave me side-effects that I could not tolerate.

Managing the Symptoms of Anxiety

I managed the symptoms somewhat on my own, but after attending a new exercise class I managed to pinch a nerve, causing a spiral into total health anxiety (and flaring old sciatic issues). I contacted my doctor to trial a different medication, but not the biggest fan of medication, I also researched other options.

After some consideration, I decided to forgo medication and purchased the book It’s Not All In Your Head: How Worrying About Your Health Could Be Making You Sick—And What To Do About It by Gordon Asmundson and Steven Taylor. I worked through this workbook and it really did help establish insight into what was going on. I think as a healthcare provider I can often provide a more objective view to my patients, but am unable to be realistic with myself

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After working through the book I began to realize the next necessary step and I contacted a counselor. I could not have made a better choice. I’ve always had a difficult time discussing my emotions, and my counselor provided an opportunity to do this.

She asked pointed questions of which I was obligated to provide an answer of some sort, rather than shrugging off a non-confrontational response. Even better, when I would start rambling about something she would redirect me quickly. She guided me into establishing a plan involving exercise, guided breathing sequences and journaling to help cope with what I was experiencing at work and maintain the health-related anxiety at a more manageable level.

But her best advice came as a reminder that factors outside of my clinical control exist and also play a part in patient functional improvement—advice that would help anyone feeling the burnout of healthcare. We pour our heart and soul into treating our patients and want the best for them. We feel frustration when therapies aren’t working as intended and sadness if patients plateau or decline in function. We provide best practice treatments to all who we come in contact with. And sometimes, it doesn’t work. Though we definitely don’t want this to be the norm, we have no choice but to learn to cope when it happens.

And this presents me with consideration for my future in healthcare, asking again, “how can I be happy in my job?” I wish I could recall where I recently saw someone’s response to this question. A posted comment or blog roughly stated that our mindset simply has to change.

Walk into work each day prepared to do the best you can at your current job. Your job is what you make of it, and healthcare is no exception. Healthcare may be a different beast than a typical corporate/office job, but in the end it is still a means of an income, it does not define you.

Keep it Fresh

The world of rehabilitation is changing. Find opportunities to trial new techniques or even assessments and educate your peers. Contact companies about trying new products. Inquire about obtaining marketing experience. Let your creativity come out and become the best OT you can be.

In the end, this is simply a job and not our identity. And we can find satisfaction in providing a stellar performance. Give yourself a breather on the ongoing job search and try to look at your current situation and what you can develop interest in.

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Working through health-anxiety is an ongoing battle for me, and I have a feeling I will be dealing with it for some time. I do my best to maintain my “HEP”, but like so many of my own patients I only do a mediocre job on maintaining a consistent schedule. I still experience physical manifestations of my anxiety of a regular basis and I try to maintain a realistic outlook regarding the most likely culprit of the symptoms. I attempt to plug in breathing techniques when my busy work and family life allows. I try to exercise and journal, as I recognize that those especially help me work through each day. And I thank you for allowing me to use this post as a therapeutic platform.

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A note from Sarah Stromsdorfer, founder of My OT Spot: I want to give a huge thanks to Renee for sharing her personal story with the OT world. After going through the same feelings of burnout and work-related anxiety myself, I wanted to create a series on burnout in occupational therapy to help out all of the OT practitioners going through the same thing. I also wanted to have this post be a forum in the comments section for anyone to share their feelings as well.

If you’re a burned out OT or COTA, please feel free to use the comments as a platform to share your thoughts as well as what strategies have helped you. Be sure to also check out further resources on burnout down below.

Additional Resources

How to Deal with Burnout as an Occupational Therapist (My OT Spot)

Burned Out in Occupational Therapy? Tips to Reclaim your Practice (Seniors Flourish Podcast)

The Cost of Caring: Managing Compassion Fatigue in Healthcare (My OT Spot)

Occupational Therapy Burnout: The Ugly Truth No One Talks About (Covalent Careers)

 

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4 comments

  • Moto July 3, 2019   Reply →

    I’m glad I read this article! For so long I felt so down on myself because I change jobs so often. 😔

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 5, 2019   Reply →

      You definitely aren’t the only one! It’s so rare to see my peers, who have been out of school for less than 5 years, stay in the same job that they first started out in. I hope you do find a great fit if you haven’t already!

  • Burnout won’t keep this OT down July 17, 2019   Reply →

    Thank you for posting this. As a seasoned (18 years COTA) working full time and attending MSOT bridge program (3/4 didactic semesters completed) I have just realized I might be suffering from burnout. I realized I was overwhelmed, but didn’t think it had got to the point of burnout. It is refreshing to know that we are only human and can only take so much. We have to love ourselves so we can do right by our patients.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L July 18, 2019   Reply →

      This is so true and I’m glad you’re able to realize your limits. Hang in there!

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