Working in pediatrics is emotionally demanding. Sometimes new therapists aren’t prepared for that.
Physical exhaustion is to be expected, but the emotional aspect is often overlooked. Understanding how that will effect your therapists in the long run is important.
Erika decided to become an OT as a Dance major in 2010. Injuries and other roadblocks ended her dance career, so she had to decide what to do next. She knew she wanted to find a way to take a creative approach to medicine, and fell in love with occupational therapy.
By 2014, she was working as a pediatric occupational therapist.
“Pediatric therapists spend much of their day lifting children, managing behaviors and creating obstacle courses,” Erika says. And, unlike therapists who work with adults, pediatric therapists will often end up running the course with their patient!
She knew it would be physically demanding, but the emotional demands took her by surprise.
Erika started out in outpatient pediatrics. She had a heavy workload, and after a while she began to feel drained. Eventually she had a “mini-breakdown.”
She had been ignoring the signs of burnout because she didn’t want her coworkers to think she couldn’t handle the job. “I was embarrassed, I didn’t want to be perceived as weak,” she said. “I felt like it was because I was new. I didn’t have anything else to compare it to, so I assumed it was just because I wasn’t used to it.”
Fortunately, Erika worked for a supportive organization that was very receptive when she talked to them about reducing her workload. But that wasn’t enough to deal with the emotional exhaustion she faced.
She wasn’t sleeping well. She would go to sleep stressed, then she would wake up at night thinking she was late for a session. She woke up in the mornings and didn’t feel rested.
Finally, she decided to dig deeper to really analyze burnout, its causes, how to prevent it, and how to treat it. She’s spent the last two years doing that, and she shares her findings on her podcast.
The 6 Causes of Burnout
Based on her experiences and research, Erika attributes burnout to six causes:
- Work overload. This is a big factor in pediatric therapy burnout because so often documentation must be completed off the clock.
- Lack of control. This can be the result of micromanagement, or feeling like management isn’t receptive to the needs of its therapists.
- Insufficient reward. Does compensation match the effort and time spent by your therapists?
- Breakdown of community. Does your clinic have a supportive environment? Is there a sense of community and concern for your therapists’ personal and professional development?
- Unfairness. If your therapists feel they aren’t being treated fairly, it can affect their overall outlook.
- Value conflicts. Value conflicts can arise when therapists feel they are being required to do things that conflict with their morals.
Signs of Burnout
“Burnout is a gradual process,” Erika says. “The main factor is feeling drained, emotionally exhausted.” Here are some warning signs to look out for:
- Disturbed sleep
- Feeling helpless
- Substance abuse
Some of these won’t be easy to spot. You’ll be more likely to notice absenteeism or presenteeism (Defined by this Harvard Business Review article as “being on the job but, because of illness or other medical conditions, not fully functioning”).
Is one of your therapists making more mistakes than usual? Are they ignoring safety concerns or overlooking other things?
How to Treat Burnout
If you notice that a coworker or employee is demonstrating any of the signs of burnout, Erika says “Bringing it to their awareness is key.”
“Over time, these things can become a therapists new normal. It becomes hard to step outside yourself and recognize that you’re burned out.”
Before you mention anything to another therapist, consider whether or not you’re the best person to bring it up. Erika recommends having someone close to the therapist bring it to their attention and to find out what’s going on. “Just be a good listener,” she says.
“Let them know you’re there and you’ll help them. Find out what they need. Whether it’s a long weekend, more resources, a lighter workload, etc.”
How to Prevent Burnout
Since burnout typically occurs in younger therapists, make sure they’re aware of it. Make sure they understand that even the most passionate of therapists can get burned out.
Also, make sure they know what to look out for, and make sure they know you’re there if they need to make a change.
Creating a positive, supportive environment is the best way to prevent burnout. When Erika needed to lessen her workload, her clinic was very supportive and that made a big difference.
“Being part of a team or work organization that really cares about your needs, and doesn’t just see you as an employee is important,” Erika says. “Therapists need to find a team that’s going to foster their professional development and be there when therapists need to advocate themselves.”
To learn more about avoiding burnout in your clinic, check out Erika’s podcast, Burnt Out to Lit Up, “[t]he only podcast addressing the destructive and under-reported issue of burnout in the healthcare industry.”