How to Cope With Therapist Burnout Around Telehealth

by Jun 11, 2022

Telehealth: Then and Now

Telehealth was first used in the late 1960s, to meet the needs of NASA and the Nebraska Psychology Institute. In the 1970s, this technology was expanded on to benefit rural populations that didn’t have local access to medical care. Since then, with the advent of the internet and more advanced technology, telehealth has grown, becoming popular in the form of video chat only relatively recently.

So, while telehealth has been around for decades, in some form or another, it quickly became the norm in 2020, the year COVID hit the U.S. hard. Suddenly, telehealth became the standard way to access medical care, and practitioners were forced to quickly create and implement programs and procedures that normally would have taken months to do. In some ways, it was a testament to what we were all capable of, but it was also the beginning of a long period of waiting, constant back-and-forth changes, and more waiting.

Mental Health Clinicians, Telehealth, and the Pandemic

A 2021 study from Kelly Daly, Ph.d., and Elana G. Spira, Ph.D., of Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS), a provider of community-based outpatient mental health services in White Plains, N.Y., investigated clinician burnout in this new age of telehealth. The study targeted clinicians who had been providing mental health treatment remotely for the past year. 

Some of the findings include:

  • 29% reported having had COVID
  • 34% reported living with someone who had COVID
  • 29% had someone close to them pass away from the virus
  • About half of the respondents had children at home during the early stages of the pandemic, and many of them reported difficulties in scheduling clients due to the needs of their children.
  • 65% said there was an increase in the hours they devoted to childcare
  • 20% of those reported devoting more than 10 additional hours to childcare each week
  • 16% reported being the caretaker for an older adult or individual with disabilities living in the home
  • 77% of the clinicians reported not taking sick leave, instead continuing to work from home when ill
  • 66% took substantially less vacation time.

With the increase in their personal and professional responsibilities, along with the ways they’ve been personally affected by COVID, it’s no wonder that clinician burnout has been high throughout the pandemic. 

Coping with Telehealth Burnout

Burnout is a term we often associate with a failure on the part of the person experiencing it (“Don’t let yourself get burned out! Take care of yourself!”), but during the pandemic it became nearly impossible for most people, especially those both working from home and caring for children who were suddenly home all day, to engage in self-care.

As the WJCS study says:

The term [burnout] is often invoked as a caution, presented as the culmination of a therapist’s failures to engage in self-care, set appropriate boundaries, and maintain work-life balance – provisions rendered near-impossible at various points during the pandemic.”

How Do You Know if You’re Experiencing Telehealth Burnout?

Burnout is more than stress, and it’s more than exhaustion. Burnout is a “state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” This condition is often work-related, but not always. How do you know if you’re experiencing burnout, and that it’s not just stress, or perhaps something else, like depression?

Here are a few common burnout symptoms:

  • Have you become cynical or critical toward your work or your colleagues, or less caring toward your patients?
  • Do you feel less enthusiasm for your work, or do you feel like you have to force yourself to get started in the morning?
  • Do you feel that you’re just “going through the motions?”
  • Are you struggling to perform your daily tasks?
  • Have your sleep or eating habits changed?
  • Do you feel completely overwhelmed?

4 Steps You Can Take to Cope with Telehealth Burnout

Realizing you’re experiencing burnout may make things seem even worse, but knowing what’s wrong – and being willing to address it – is the first step to combating burnout. There are a few things you can do to handle burnout before it gets worse. 

Try using the following strategies:

1. Set Boundaries

When you’re working from home, the lines between your personal and professional lives can get blurred. And you may not feel the same sense of structure you’d feel at your office. You might think, ‘Well, I don’t really need a lunch break, I can just grab something from the kitchen and eat it at my desk,’ but setting boundaries – with yourself, your clients, and your other household members – is what will get you back on the path to a healthy mindset. 

Brit Barkholtz, MSW, LICSW, a clinical therapist in St. Paul Minnesota, says in an article for Forbes magazine:

“With telehealth, especially, it ends up being so easy to just add an extra appointment here, extra appointment there, next thing you know you’ve added five more to your week than you’d planned.”  

2. Get Support

A key factor in preventing and reducing burnout is a solid support system. Seek out support from your friends and family, but also other colleagues. You’ll likely find that they are having a lot of the same feelings that you’re experiencing, and can offer you a unique type of empathy and camaraderie. Also, if you work for an organization that offers an employee assistance program, this is a great time to take advantage of those services.

3. Use Self-Calming Strategies

Set aside some time before you begin work each morning, or whenever works best for you, to engage in self-calming activities, like breathing deeply, meditation, yoga, reading, or anything that makes you feel calm. You can even work calming exercises into your breaks. Just a few minutes of deep breathing or meditation can help you to feel more relaxed, more inspired, and more capable.

4. Remove Obstacles to Practicing Self-Care

It’s obvious that practicing self-care is important to reducing and preventing burnout, but sometimes, especially in the age of COVID, it’s easier said than done. That’s why it helps to move your focus to making self-care easier. Think about the reasons you give yourself for not being able to properly care for yourself. Do you think you don’t have time, because of your commitments to others – patients, colleagues, loved ones? Do you feel that the time and effort you’d have to exert to exercise, to shop for and cook healthy meals, to have a  ‘date night’ with a partner or a day to just spend some time with yourself, is too much? 

Make it easier on yourself! Set those boundaries and clear out your schedule a little. Taking an extra hour or so per day to give yourself some space to breathe doesn’t mean you’re not a dedicated clinician. And setting boundaries with your spouse, children and other household members is important, too. If you’re able to dedicate a certain timeframe to work completely, and set aside some time for just yourself, then you’ll be able to dedicate the promised time to your family, as well. 

If planning meals, dates, family activities, and self-care time seems too overwhelming, lower your expectations, just a little. It’s ok to forego complicated recipes for simple, healthy meals if meal planning is too much right now. It’s ok to not have the most memorable weekend, date night, or vacation ever. The important thing is that you’re spending the time together. And you don’t have to book a spa day to take care of yourself. If you can only do the minimum right now, make sure you’re eating right, getting some type of exercise, taking time to relax and refocus, and not taking on more than you can handle.

Feeling Overwhelmed? We Want to Help

At Alford Creative, we pride ourselves on helping those who help others. That’s why we work with therapists and other mental health clinicians, guiding them to achieve their professional goals.

We think that what you do is some of the most important work there is. If you run your own private practice and are feeling burned out, we want to help! We offer advice, coaching, and marketing and website support and can take some of the responsibilities off of your shoulders, leaving you with more time to take care of yourself and to do what you do best – help others.

Want to find out how we can help? Schedule a free 30-minute strategy consultation today.

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