May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health providers play a critical role in promoting awareness and working to improve the lives of others. Yet, compassion fatigue and burnout are very real issues for those in the field. Last week, the PAR blog explored the state of burnout among mental health professionals. This week, we look at the signs of burnout and provide solutions for self-care.
Mental health providers continue to face a workforce shortage and ongoing burnout risks. Organizations and individuals need to prioritize and implement strategies to prevent and reduce burnout.
Mental health professionals were understaffed and facing a mental health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which only exacerbated the demands on a healthcare system already stretched beyond its breaking point.
According to the 2023 Mental Health America report, nationally, there are 350 patients to every mental health provider. However, the ratio widely varies from state to state; for example, the Massachusetts patient-to-provider ratio is 140:1, and in Alabama, it is 850:1.
The American Psychological Association conducted a survey in 2022 that found that more people required treatment for anxiety or depression than there were mental health professionals available to provide it. According to APA, 6 out of 10 practitioners claimed they had no opening to take on new cases, 46% said they couldn’t handle the demand, and 72% said their patient waitlists had only grown since the onset of the pandemic.
Seeing the demand and shortage of mental health professionals highlights just one pain point of many that mental health professionals contend with daily. Many mental health professionals are so passionate about attempting to meet the needs of their patients that they may sacrifice their own physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being. Yet, even with this devotion, they realize that it still isn’t enough to be able to help everyone who needs help. It isn’t difficult to see why 45% psychologists reported feeling burned out in 2022.
Mental health professionals and organizations should not assume that their education, training, and experience make them immune from experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout. In fact, those in the mental health field need to be vigilant and watch for the signs that they themselves or others they work with may be experiencing burnout.
Signs of burnout
Three of the most common signs of burnout include:
Exhaustion: Individuals often feel emotionally exhausted or drained, unable to cope, and have low moods and energy. They may also experience physical symptoms such as gastrointestinal problems.
Loss of interest in work-related activities: Individuals often feel increasingly frustrated and stressed by their jobs. They may experience growing cynicism about their work environment or colleagues and emotionally withdraw and feel numb regarding their work.
Decreased effectiveness or performance: Burnout affects daily tasks at work or home. Individuals experiencing burnout may be pessimistic, have difficulty concentrating, lack creativity, and lack energy and enthusiasm.
Individuals, organizations, and the media have helped spread the word about burnout in healthcare, but that isn’t enough to prevent it from continuing. Organizations need to work to prevent and reduce burnout among mental healthcare staff.
Strategies to combat burnout
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) argues that organization-level interventions should target burnout using a “whole-organization approach” due to the complex nature of burnout with many root causes and drivers.
According to SAMHSA, there are six areas that organizations need to address through improvement strategies to work towards preventing and reducing burnout among mental health workers. These six areas are:
SAMHSA outlines several strategies that can aid organizations in combatting and addressing burnout, such as:
Although mental health professionals counsel others on the importance of self-compassion, it doesn’t mean they may not neglect its practice when it comes to themselves.
Self-care can help reduce stress, compassion fatigue, and other factors leading to burnout. Building the practice of self-care doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can gradually add in one or several of the following:
Practice self-compassion: Self-compassion may work as a protective factor against exposure to secondary traumatic stress and burnout. Individuals need to see themselves as more than their job and know they are also due kindness and understanding.
Eat a balanced diet: Workloads may be excessive, and it may be tempting to work through lunch to squeeze in another client, a meeting, or other work, but don’t do it! It is important to take a break to eat nutrient-dense foods to keep your energy levels up and to help combat daily stress.
Get enough sleep: It is important to prioritize getting enough sleep. The CDC reports that adults need at least 7 hours of sleep. Studies have shown that sacrificing sleep can lead to anxiety and stress and how stressful events are perceived.
Exercise: Even taking a brisk walk can help remove you from your work and create a much-needed break, which helps to counter chronic stress and boost mood. Aerobic activity can also contribute to feeling better and increase endorphins in the body.
Reach out: If you are experiencing burnout, contact your supervisor or human resources about your hours or workload. If you are a solo practitioner, take some time to decide what boundaries you may be able to create to allow yourself a break.
Use time off: Vacations and breaks from work help prevent burnout.
Practice stress reduction activities: Yoga, meditation, deep breathing can provide short, much-needed breaks in a busy day.
Socialize with colleagues: Taking time out to connect with peers can help with the feeling of connectedness and reduce emotional exhaustion.
Mental health professionals must take steps to prioritize your own health and well-being. This will not only help to prevent burnout, it means you will be your most effective self and equipped to provide your clients and students with the quality care they need.