I really believe that in order to help someone, you have to have a genuine relationship. Part of this involves opening yourself up to feel the emotions the other person does. Many of the people I have worked with (including clients, other OTs, and those in healthcare management) have had horrible life experiences, and incredibly strong negative emotions. When you take on that vicarious emotion, day after day, and then return to your busy life at home, it can take a toll on you. I find this even more challenging since having children, as they also seem to sap my energy and strength, and give me very little time to recharge.
Another factor that often leads to burnout is work environment. Problems with co-workers, or always feeling like you are fighting the system, can leave you feeling spent. Having to put in a lot of overtime hours gives you little time to recharge.
So what can a person do to avoid burnout (or recover from it)?
- Find out how you recharge best. Do you recharge best from being alone or connecting with others? We all seem to need a little bit of both, but most people recharge better one way or another. Be sure to write time in your schedule for recharging.
- Debrief with others in your field about particularly challenging situations on a regular basis. See if your area can schedule at least weekly meetings for this purpose.
- Schedule in exercise time for yourself. If you do not take care of yourself, you will be in no condition to take care of others. I'm not talking about having to go work out at the gym for hours every day. If you schedule exercise (e.g. a walk) with a friend, you ensure that you will actually go do it, and you get to socialize (which is also good for you).
- Go easy on yourself. Not everyone can be accomplishing things all the time - it is OK to take time just to be.
- Examine what may be causing your burnout. Is it just the vicarious trauma from your clients, or are there other factors? Is it also the dynamics with your co-workers? Is it the system in which you work? Are there any of these situations that you can change, or do you need to work on accepting them? Could you discuss any concerns with your work environment with your supervisor? Generally I have found my supervisors very receptive to concerns that I have had, and they have been powerful allies when fighting the system.
- Keep a "success" file. Keep a copy of any positive emails and employee evaluations you receive. Keep record of the clients that you were able to help the most. I kept a file of really positive reports with personal information blacked out. Review your file frequently.
- Take time away. Remember that you are entitled to your vacation time, and you need to use it to ensure that you are in condition to help others. Take your lunch and coffee breaks - they are there because you need them. If your workload is too much, do not be too proud to ask for help. If you are showing up to work and working hard, that is all your employer can expect from you. Do not be afraid to ask your spouse or significant others for a weekend away. Getting away from everything and everyone can help put everything in perspective.
- Make a list of the things that bring joy and balance to your life. This is your "more of" list. Now think of what is not on the list. This is your "less of" list. How do these lists relate to how you are currently spending your time? How can you change how you spend your time so that you spend more time doing the activities on the "more of" list and less time doing the activities on the "less of" list?
- Do not be afraid to seek professional help. Just because you are a service provider does not mean that you cannot be a service recipient as well. In fact, being a service recipient will help you to better understand where your clients are coming from. Many employers offer Employee Assistance Programs where you can get counselling - you are entitled to use this service. Your employer offers it to help keep you in condition where you can continue helping others. If you have been feeling depressed or anxious, talk to your doctor.
These are the things that I have found helpful, but I am sure there are many I have missed. What works for you?