When the World Health Organization (WHO) added “Burnout” from workplace stress to its International Classification of Disease, it seemed that workers from all sectors breathed a collective sigh of relief.
For many workers, it was validation that, no, they’re not crazy and, yes, their jobs are impossible to handle without emotional, psychological, and sometimes even physical pain.
Let’s talk about speech therapy burnout.
What is Burnout?
The WHO defines burnout as chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been managed successfully.
Burnout is characterized by:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job
- Reduced professional efficacy
What WHO doesn’t mention are the high personal stakes of these burned-out workers.
The Mayo Clinic listed the consequences of burnout. They include:
- Excessive stress
- Sadness, anger, or irritability
- Alcohol or substance misuse
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Vulnerability to illnesses
Speech Therapy Professionals are at High Risk for Burnout
Therapists’ documentation and productivity expectations have become suffocating. We face painful and even traumatic situations every day as we serve the sick and suffering—often without acknowledgment of the toll that it takes on us.
And whether we like to admit it or, our therapy culture does not value vulnerability. Discouraged from showing ‘weakness,’ we fake it ’till we make it, whatever that means. And instead of admitting the limitations of our fields, we are criticized—and maybe even criticize ourselves and others—for not being good enough.
Unfortunately, some of our employers have reduced therapists to percentages and dollar signs. They mandate lunch meetings, requiring us to work during their breaks. They squeeze us into open offices with harsh lighting and no privacy. They declined to say ‘thank you’ or ‘good job’.
Therapists are burning out, and sometimes in dangerous ways.
I know this from personal experience.
At the peak of my burnout, I was admitted to the ER for intense abdominal pain and suffered such severe depression and anxiety that I feared for my life. A fellow OT working in schools was rushed to the ICU for work-stress-induced pneumonia. Her doctors told her to quit her job, or it might kill her.
We are the more extreme examples of burnout—but I can guarantee that we’re not the only ones.
However, our tough experiences did teach us a valuable life lesson: Take care of yourself.
Take Care of Yourself
1) Whatever You’re Feeling is Valid and Okay
Employers may say you ‘should’ be able to handle 90% productivity. Or that you ‘should’ take on those extra projects without overtime. But if you’re chronically overwhelmed and exhausted, then they’re wrong.
Give yourself the space to pause and check in. You may sit in nature, meditate, or even take a minute alone in your car before rushing to the next patient.
Consider talk therapy if you’re struggling. Psychology Today’s excellent Find a Therapist feature allows you to choose therapists based on your insurance and personal preferences. For example, you can find a woman therapist who specializes in CBT.
If that’s not your jam, find other ways to respectfully work through hard feelings. Here’s an article about self-care.
2) Advocate for Yourself
If possible, bring up your concerns with your supervisor before they become a bigger issue. Explain the situation simply, without blaming anybody. Come prepared with specific solutions (for example, a quiet workspace) and ask for help.
Problem-solve other solutions. Check out our other articles and resources. We have Treatment Ideas, Goal & Evaluation guides, and Printable Worksheets and Handouts to make your life easier. Get tips from a colleague who has effective organization and work systems.
A Script to Ask for What You Want
Let’s say that your schedule as a home health therapist is full at 5-6 patients per day. But the schedulers keep adding new evaluations so that you feel pressured to see 6-7 patients per day.
Write an email to your supervisor (consider CCing the schedulers):
Hello Supervisor, I have been feeling overwhelmed by my caseload recently, especially given the severity of the disorders I’m treating. I am grateful to have a full caseload, yet I feel that the quality of my therapy suffers when I see more than 5 or 6 patients per day. Would it be reasonable for the following evaluations to be extended 2 weeks out? I reviewed the case histories, and these patients appear safe enough for speech therapy to come at that time. I really appreciate your consideration and look forward to your reply.
Most supervisors will do their best to work with you. They want to keep their excellent employee (you!) Plus, it’s expensive to find and train new therapists.
Unfortunately, there are some settings that, despite your diligent efforts to meet their standards and to communicate respectfully, won’t be willing to meet your needs. At this point, you may want to consider if the job is worth it.
We therapists do important work. Not just with our clinical skills but also with our compassionate care for our patients.
Let’s extend that compassion to ourselves, shall we?