occupational-therapy-burnout

8 Reasons Why You Might Be Feeling Burned Out As An OT

This post was originally published on March 25, 2017 and updated on June 15, 2019.

If you’re reading this, you may have landed here after Googling something like “unhappy with my occupational therapy job” or “feeling burned out as an OT” or maybe even “sick of my OT job.”

If so, I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling this way! But just know that everyone has rough days (or weeks, or months!) in this field, and I hope this post can give you some comfort and clarity of why you might be feeling like this.

Burnout is a tough topic to address since we all want to believe that every position as an occupational therapist or COTA will be a great one.

We learn in school how meaningful our profession is (which it is!) and come out thinking every job will be fantastic. But in reality, this isn’t always the case.

I’ve learned through my own personal fieldwork and job experiences, along with my occupational therapist friends’ experiences, that not all occupational therapy jobs are created equal. Some can leave you feeling frustrated or even downright miserable.

This post covers the most common reasons I hear of why OTs are frustrated or unhappy with their jobs. I also will offer some solutions to these common problems so you can get back to (or start!) doing what you love.

1. You’re in an Unethical Setting

I’m sad to say that more and more for-profit therapy companies are hiring new grads to unknowingly commit ethical violations in order to make the companies more money. This can include treating inappropriate patients who do not need skilled therapy, keeping patients on for far longer than what is beneficial, over-treating the patients to bill for more minutes, and more.

You can read more about ethical dilemmas in my post titled Ethical Dilemmas in Occupational Therapy. The post covers the most prevalent situations that occupational therapists may find themselves in, especially as new grads.

Needless to say, working in a setting like this is sure to cause major burnout, and if you’re in a setting like this, you should get out of it as soon as you can. You’ll be glad you did.

2. Productivity Demands Are Too High

While it may not seem blatantly unethical, many companies have productivity targets that are way too high to be able to ensure proper care and documentation of patients.

Therapy should be treated as the helping profession that it is, and not a factory with demands so high many therapists don’t even have time to eat or use the bathroom.

ot-burnout-productivity-demands

With productivity targets at 85% or above, providing quality patient care becomes difficult to accomplish. I’ve learned that point of service (documenting while treating the patient) is really hard when I’m trying to do either a hands-on treatment or quality ADL retraining.

I’ve personally found that non-profit hospital OT and COTA positions generally have better, more realistic productivity requirements compared to for-profit rehab companies. While it can still be stressful to get done documenting in time, I love that I can actually pay attention to my patients and provide solid treatments.

3. You Don’t Have Proper Mentorship

Many new grads get into positions where they are the only OT, or even the only therapist at times. This is SUPER stressful since you don’t have anyone to guide you or answer questions, and you really are “thrown to the wolves.”

If you’re a new grad in this situation, I recommend taking the time to find a new position where there are other OTs around to help guide you. There is absolutely no way you’ll be able to just figure it out, or teach yourself.

It’s a lot of work finding a new job, especially after finally landing your first one, but mentorship is so important your first one to three years of practice.

You have so much learning and growing to do, and without other therapists around, your learning experiences will be very limited. I’ve found that the hospital settings are the best for learning and for being around other therapists to help show you the ropes.

4. You Haven’t Found Your Setting

It seems many new grads jump into the first job they can get, since it can be really hard to get your first job. It may be easiest to get a job in a SNF versus landing your dream job in pediatrics, acute care, hand therapy (or insert your ideal setting here).

While skilled nursing positions might pay well, if your heart isn’t into it you definitely won’t be happy.

If this is the case, don’t stop looking for a position in your favorite setting. Keep applying, and don’t give up!

I applied three times to my current inpatient rehab job after I already started working at another position that wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m so glad I did, because I finally got that call back and am so grateful to be an OT in the hospital-setting.

5. You’re Getting Bored With Your Interventions

This is super common. You have your toolbox, and know what interventions work for you. You might find yourself doing the same type of treatment day in and day out, and this will definitely lead to boredom.

I’ve certainly been in this situation. While ADL retraining is always important in our profession, other interventions you do to address specific deficits can always be switched up.

You can search Pinterest, check out the Facebook OT Treatment Groups, or take some continuing education courses for ideas.

medbridge-logo2

I personally use MedBridge Continuing Education for ideas since it’s all online and provides unlimited courses for the year. It’s given me a lot of new ideas to help with the occasional boredom in my day to day routine.

6. You’re Feeling Bored in Your Setting

If you’ve tried switching up your interventions but still feel bored in your setting, you could try switching to PRN and get a second PRN job in a different setting. This way you get the variety of two different settings part time instead of only one setting full time.

This is what I’ve done for the several years, and I really like the ability to have the change of pace. I’m always on my toes switching back and forth from inpatient rehab to very different diagnoses and treatments in acute care.

While juggling multiple PRN jobs might seem difficult, if your hospital has multiple areas, you can usually cross-train and stay within the same system. Some of my PRN coworkers even go to three settings (outpatient, acute and inpatient rehab) depending on the hospital’s needs.

7. You Are Always Thinking The Grass Is Greener Somewhere Else

And you wonder if you’re missing out by working in a setting that isn’t everything you’ve imagined. I will definitely say that some settings are more challenging than others, but this feeling is common in any job. Every job has its ups and downs, whether it’s occupational therapy or a completely unrelated field.

While this is a normal feeling, before you jump into another setting that may make you feel just as stressed, take some time to reflect before you make a major change. If you’re in an an unethical environment, that may be reason enough to make a big change.

When interviewing for a new position, be sure to ask about productivity requirements, expected caseload, hours you will actually get, mentorship, etc. before jumping in to a job situation that might be worse than your current job.

8. Your Workload Is Way Too Much

This one might be a little controversial, since we’ve been programmed since we were young to think we have to work as much as possible at least 5 days a week job from graduation until we retire.

But honestly, being an occupational therapist is hard. It’s physically demanding, mentally demanding (so much documenting!), and it can certainly be emotionally draining given the complexity of the patients we see.

ot-burnout-workload

Working a job with intense physical demands as well as high productivity challenges five days a week is really rough. I’ve seen this in myself, my friends, and my coworkers at the end of each day and week that it’s really hard to have any energy to get anything else done.

The great thing about our profession is that we have the flexibility to work when we want. I personally love working PRN three or four days a week at times, while earning more hourly than the full time rate. That way my total compensation isn’t lower as a result of working a few less hours.

Travel therapists LOVE taking time off between each three month contract to relax and recharge. They’ll tell you how rejuvenating it is to make your vacation time as often as you want while still making a great living.

While our student loans are high and you might feel like you can’t afford to take time off to travel or work less than five days a week, there are other ways to add to your bank account. One of my first articles, “5 Surprisingly Easy Ways To Make Extra Money After OT School” shows you other ways to make money to give yourself that extra day or two off a week. With the additional income, you’ll have more time to rest or get other things done which can really help with that burned out feeling!

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I hope this post helps give you some clarity of why you might be feeling burned out as an OT or COTA, and provides you with actionable solutions to take to increase your satisfaction as an occupational therapy practitioner.

If you have any additional strategies that have helped you combat burnout in your practice, please be sure to share them in the comments below. 

Additional Resources to Check Out

Are You a Burned Out OT? You Aren’t Alone! (My OT Spot)

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)

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

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5 comments

  • Harmeet Agroia November 19, 2018   Reply →

    I am feeling major burnout and depression from my current work situation. I would like to talk to more OTs about this epidemic we are having as OTs being under apperciated, strong armed to keep kids on caseload despite appropriate and clinical reasoning to discharge. Among other unethical issues I have had. Your input will help me one cope and 2 fight for change.

    • Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L November 22, 2018   Reply →

      I’m so sorry to hear this! Please feel free to email me at [email protected] if you’d like to discuss this further.

  • Henry Kathurima Murithi July 2, 2019   Reply →

    Very encouraging information! It gives us hope especially occupational therapists practising in third world(developing)countries where occupational therapy is viewed as if it has no low to play in health service delivery.

  • Carol Myers December 10, 2019   Reply →

    I have been an OT for over 36 years, and although I enjoy working with clients, I find the paperwork excessive and unnecessary for quality of care. In fact, healthcare professionals spend more time on documentation than direct client care. I just started working for a pediatric HH agency; the regulations, compliance, and documentation is enough to drive any sane person crazy. I worked in SNFs for over a dozen years, and the productivity expectations were ridiculous, in addition to blatant fraud. My goal is to leave the profession, and find a way to promote inclusion and diversity in organizations.

  • Angela Worrell April 8, 2020   Reply →

    I JUST NEED TO VENT:
    I really do not want to complain, especially with so much heartbreak and loss in the current world situation. I have been an OT in the state of Virginia since 1999. Most of my years have been school based. I have contracted to local schools with very low rates. I have a 7 yr. old grandson who has Autism, ADHD, and sensory dysfunction. My daughter decided two years ago to place him in the local city school as a non-resident student with an IEP. This was one of the schools where I contracted OT services. This school often takes students with or without IEPs. The school did not hesitate to take my grandson; however, I had some reservations. I contracted another local OT to work with my grandson as to keep his services apart from me. He did great the first year with initial struggles. The second year there were major administration changes at the school and upper levels. He lost his family preservation counselor that contracted to the school because of federal cutbacks and he was not given any additional support in the classroom. The school system had another student (very similar situation and age) whose parents were told that their son could not return to the school after he had been with the school for 3 yrs. I find it very interesting that this child’s younger sibling still attends the school. Why…. because the younger child is not showing signs of costing the school money. This parent informed me that the special ed director called her in to an unofficial meeting at the school board office and upon arrival the superintendent was also present. NO documentation at all this meeting. The school wants to collect all the federal funding they get for these children with special needs, but they won’t provide them the help they need within the school setting. They get rid of them.
    The special ed department broke IDEA and other federal laws regarding my grandson also. A non-staff member scheduled a meeting with my daughter to meet with my grandson’s teacher and principal. Upon arrival, it was the entire IEP team. She was told my grandson might need to be taken off all his meds. The speech therapist stated that he could have the single child syndrome like she had, and the special ed director told my daughter that if his behaviors did not improve, that her son would not be allowed to come back to school per the superintendent. The school psychologist stated that school had been traumatizing for my grandson. Why???!!!! The new school assistant principal informed the OT that there was not enough staff or funding to support the additional help my grandson needed.
    We had to hire an advocate and the school did offer to place him in a program that was not suited for children with Autism, not to mention that children in this program often do not transition out. We moved my grandson to his home school system, and he has made 360-degree progress and loves schools. For Valentine’s Day, my grandson told his aunt that he needed to buy his new teachers a box of chocolates each because at his new school, they like him. THAT SPEAKS VOLUME!!!!!!!! Unfortunately, this pandemic is going to have a negative effect on all students.
    Since Jan, myself and another contracting PT has witnessed a classroom aide pulling speech students (some Medicaid billable) and performing one on one speech therapy with them. I’m discussed and fed up with the entire system. The is NO accountability, no ethics, and certainly no remorse over the illegal activity. I’ve never been so finished.

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