In the past few years, organizations have reduced staff and increased performance expectations for the remaining employees. Many people seem over-worked, underappreciated, exhausted, and burned out. Given the current work climate, I wondered to a colleague if burnout recovery is truly possible, and she expressed doubt. I decided to find and interview people who have either recovered from burnout or have significant expertise in treating it. Because helping professionals are one of the groups hardest hit by job burnout, I interviewed two physicians, a psychologist, and a social worker turned life coach. Here are the interviews:
Interview: Randall S. Bock, M.D., Revere, MA
Dr. Bock, what type of work do you do?
I have a medical practice with a large component being narcotic-detoxification. I see a large number of addicts whose success rates are not enormous. I run my own medical practice, do the billing, hire staff, see all patients, and deal with whatever consequences occur. I take all of my own night calls, and off-hours I try to keep my family at home intact and happy.
Wow. That sounds like a lot. How long have you been in this career?
You sound well-qualified to talk about how to prevent or recover from job burnout. What advice do you have for my readers?
You need a strong Foundation and your Foundation is strengthened by five F’s: Fun, Family, Faith, Friends, and Fur (pets). These F’s will help you withstand vagaries in a medical practice.
Under the Fun category, I include a lot of athletic activity, but that doesn’t have to be the case for everybody. Personally I find competitive-level sports hugely diverting, because the focus is so intense when you are engaged in intense physical activity, you have to leave everything else behind in order to do well at it.
That’s terrific advice. Anything else to add?
Yes, make the most of technology. For instance, I use Dragon dictation, which helps cut down on information-transfer time. Any time you can automate a process and use technology to cut down on the more stultifying aspects of work, consider doing it.
Also, try to make sure you have enough time to appreciate the blossoms, the flowers, meaning the medical cases, the people that come in. Hear their stories, even when you think you don’t have the time. It will make the time you have shine.
Thank you, Dr. Bock. I appreciate your insights.
Interview: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., Long Beach, CA
Dr. Tessina, please tell us about your work.
I’m a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California, with 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples. I am also the author of 13 books in 16 languages, including “Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage,” “The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again,” and “The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You’re Far Apart.”
In over 35 years of providing counseling, I have not experienced burnout, but many of my colleagues have, and I have worked with many of them to resolve the problem.
What do you recommend to prevent and/or treat job burnout?
It’s necessary to take extremely good care of yourself as the therapist. Here are some specific things to address:
- Make sure you are effective with clients. Clients who get better are very motivating. It’s more important to help clients heal old trauma then to adhere to a theoretical base.
- Work from your heart – trust yourself and your intuition. If you guess wrong, just accept it and go on. In the end, you have to do therapy your own way. Theories and studies are helpful, but not if they hamper your own style.
- Identify your preferences, then do your best to maximize what you like and minimize what you don’t like. If you don’t like paperwork, get computer programs or secretarial help. If you don’t like working with depression, either don’t see those clients, or get more training so you’ll know how to handle it. If you like working with women, children, couples, etc., focus on that in your practice building.
- Have a support team of colleagues with whom you can share your therapy experiences as peers.
- Learn to set solid boundaries. Learn how to say no to intrusive clients, how to keep them in appropriate parts of your life, and not let them take over your free time.
- Limit your hours to what works for you. Design your own style of working, and make sure your place of work is comfortable to you.
- Trust that you will get the right clients for your style. Be clear what your own style is, and don’t worry if it doesn’t work for some clients – refer them to someone else. Different clients need different therapy styles.
- Learn from therapists you respect and admire, with whom you feel comfortable. If you don’t respect a theory or practice style, don’t use it. If you can modify a theory or practice style to suit you, do it.
- Do your own work. It’s impossible to be effective as a therapist if you haven’t been in the client’s chair. You need to delve deeply into your own subconscious, so that you’ll understand your weaknesses and your strengths, and won’t be blindsided by “dark side” issues when they are triggered.
That’s an excellent list. Thank you, Dr. Tessina.
You may read more about Dr. Tessina at TinaTessina.com.
Interview: Demian Obregon, M.D., Tampa, FL
Hello, Dr. Obregon. Please tell us about your work.
I am a resident physician in psychiatry at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. Regarding my career so far, I have been a researcher in Alzheimer’s disease since early 2000. In 2003, I entered medical school, finally graduating in 2008. Since that time I have been a resident in psychiatry and a research fellow continuing my research in Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.
I was a medical student at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. At the time I was a M.D./Ph.D. student at Tulane University. All of my samples, reagents, and files were lost. In addition, Tulane administration laid off my research sponsor. I can remember a particularly hard period from December of 2005 through early February of 2006 where I experienced emotional exhaustion and overwhelm. It was a mixture of bereavement because I thought my career had been washed away with Katrina’s storm waters and dread about having to rebuild everything I had worked so very hard to achieve.
Every day became a struggle to pull myself out of bed. At times I was short with my coworkers, even yelling at my boss for insignificant mistakes. The recovery part took a good four months or more.
What did you do to recover?
I really focused on self care, especially behavioral aspects of stress management. I became diligent again about going to the gym. I needed more time for rest and recovery so I became extremely organized to free up the time I needed. I started talking more to my friends and family about my problems and they offered comfort and some good ideas for dealing with the tremendous workload and emotional burden. I moved and started a new career at University of South Florida in Tampa. Besides modifying my behavior and seeking counseling from good people around me, I started setting good limits and saying, “No” a little more often. I also asked people to help me when I needed help.
These are some of the hardest lessons to learn when we just want to buckle down and take care of business without burdening anyone else. However, what we need to do when we are going through burnout is exactly the opposite. Here is where you have to do the very first step of self evaluation. You have to stop and ask yourself, “What’s going on? What is causing burnout?”
Next you have to organize and prioritize. This becomes the framework for “the real treatment,” which is to change your workload; work being either personal or professional. Based on your list of priorities you will need to carve the fat out of your energy budget by setting limits and living within your means financially, physically, and mentally. Knowing your limits is important when you are suffering from burnout. Now that you carved out a little time and energy you need to put that to good use. Use the time for stress relief. Whether it is deep breathing, sequential muscle relaxation, positive visualization, spending time with friends and family, talking to a friend, going for a walk, running four miles, weight training, listening to soothing music, or having a massage, these become your essential “preventative and supportive care” for your body’s recovery from burnout.
Sometimes none of this works. This is when you should get professional counseling and/or medical care. Licensed mental health counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are some of the helping professionals who specialize in treating and preventing burnout.
Dr. Obregon, it is a rather dramatic experience to have your life’s work be washed away in a hurricane. Thank you for sharing your story and for wisdom about how to recover from burnout.
Interview: Tonia Boterf, L.S.W., H.H.P., C.L.C., Augusta, ME
Hello, Ms. Boterf. Please tell us about your work.
I have been a Licensed Social Worker for 20 years. I am also now a Certified Life Coach and Certified Holistic Health Practitioner.
Please tell us about your experience with job burnout.
I had a nervous breakdown in 2002. I took time off to recover and to fight the system about what some coworkers had done to me. I won, and I tried to go back to a lower paying and former job. I started back part-time and moved up to full-time and then after a couple of months, it was obvious I couldn’t do the paperwork part of things any more. So I was put on disability status.
I then spent several years trying to claw my way out of a very deep and dark pit. Once out, I realized that though I functioned, I was not the same as pre-2002. Some of me works fine but inconsistently and requires a great deal of accommodation and adaption. Some of me works now and again, some works in a twisted way and some doesn’t work at all anymore.
When I first had a brain again, I wanted to figure out how to get healthier, so I did an online nutritional consultant course. Low and behold, I liked it and did it well. So, vocationally – I used to be a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor and then found myself on the other side of the table as a client – it was agreed I could never go work in a typical work environment again (I’m consistent at being inconsistent) and remain healthy. So I decided to work from home in my own business and I went to online school for Holistic Health Practitioner. I use natural health a great deal, personally, to keep functioning without using a lot of prescription drugs that would interfere with my current level of functioning.
However, the recession started and H.H.P. couldn’t be afforded by many clients. So I completed online Life Coaching school – after all, coaching is just like what I had been doing for over 25 yrs.
As a result, I started two online businesses, one helping families with aging parents and one helping new coaches with starting their businesses.
How is it going for you?
I am growing both businesses. Working from home allows me to have the flexibility I need and to make the adaptations and accommodations that have allowed me to function so far. Time will tell how much I can handle client wise (more than what I do now) and also do the necessary business activities.
So, ya, I was and am a social service professional that got knocked around. I don’t think of it as gradual burnout like I saw some peers go through but rather, I unexpectedly crashed due to a “perfect storm” of events that could happen to anyone. I was always known for my self-confidence and my strength and no one thought something like this could happen to me.
For me, the journey has been one of incredible pain, of losing your life and identity in so many ways while struggling to create a new life. It means learning again who you are and how you are different now and how to live with it. Others treat you differently.
What advice do you have for others going through a similar challenge?
You have to find and accept the broken parts of yourself, learn every darn coping skill and adapt/accommodate so you have enough energy to handle the unexpected things life throws at you. It means trying to find out what kind of life you can create and what and where work will play a role in it.
Accept help. I would never have made it out of “the pit” and be able to function as I do, if it hadn’t been for my boyfriend at the time of the crash. Even when I wasn’t functioning, he married me. My husband is my soul mate, my rock and why I have the quality of life I have. Yes, I’m a fighter and I had to find the strength within me to “come back” but I KNOW that without my husband, it wouldn’t have happened. I thank God for him every day.
Thank you so much, Ms. Boterf, for your bravery and candor in relating your experience. I know that other people will benefit from it.