Mental Health Workers May Not Recognize Their Own Burnout

An exhausted woman holds her head in her handsMental health workers such as social workers, psychologists, and therapists deal with a seemingly endless stream of trauma, depression, and negativity in their work with people. Though therapy can offer to hope to people in deep emotional trouble, hearing daily stories of abuse, trauma, and injustice can take its toll on even the most experienced therapist. A large number of mental health professionals experience burnout, or a similar condition specific to the helping professions known as compassion fatigue. This experience can make the practice of mental health less rewarding, interfere with mental health professionals’ well-being, and even undermine the quality of treatment that mental health clients receive. According to a study that will be presented at the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology, a dangerous number of mental health professionals may not recognize their own burnout.

Burnout Among Mental Health Professionals

The study, led by Marieke Ledingham, a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame Australia, evaluated 55 mental health workers. The group included mental health experts with a range of credentials and experience, including nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, and social workers. Most of the participants were women, and 60% were over 40. Each participant answered a questionnaire about their experience with burnout and attitudes about how burnout might affect their work performance. Researchers also conducted in-depth interviews with 12 participants.

The results indicated that burnout is a common experience in the mental health field. Mental health workers who admitted experiencing burnout reported that they were less effective at work because of the experience. However, many participants experienced symptoms of burnout but failed to recognize burnout as such. These workers were more likely to blame themselves for the experience, and struggled to seek help or disclose their burnout to others because they feared being negatively judged. In some cases, mental health workers were unable to recognize signs of burnout until they experienced physical or mental health issues.

Signs of burnout or compassion fatigue can include the following symptoms, among others:

  • Feelings of incompetence
  • Poor job performance
  • Chronic emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of resentment toward one’s job or clients
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, weight loss, or difficulty sleeping

In the study, Ledingham points out a correlation between burnout and the ability to seek help for burnout. As signs of burnout increased, the ability of mental health workers to recognize their own burnout decreased, suggesting that burnout can undermine professional competence. This decreased ability to recognize burnout also decreased mental health professionals’ willingness to seek help. Ledingham emphasizes that mental health organizations must become more attuned to burnout signs in employees, and highlights the role of unhealthy and unrealistic work expectations in the development of burnout. Burnout and compassion fatigue are preventable, and mental health professionals will benefit from routinely employing self-care strategies to help maintain wellness and develop healthy coping skills.


Mental health workers don’t recognize their own burnout. (2015, January 9). Retrieved from

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  • Leiggh

    January 26th, 2015 at 3:21 PM

    I can definitely see this as something that could sneak up on you when you are in that profession. Many times I am sure that you are so busy helping other people and allowing them to work through their own problems that you sort of forget to take care of your own. This has to be a temptation given the amount of sadness and the issues that you help others face all day long. Some of theirs may seem so momentous compared to the things that you are feeling. You can’t forget though that the small things do often add up and ca make something that was once so small seem insurmountable because you have not tended it as you have gone along.

  • Grant

    January 27th, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    And these are definitely the people we do not need to burnout because they have a whole lot of people who depend on them!


    January 27th, 2015 at 2:46 PM

    This shows that they are human. There are many of us who have a hard time seeing when there is something wrong and that we could be depressed.
    It could take someone close to us pointing out that we are acting differently and not quite ourselves to realize that there is something that is off target.
    Caregivers and providers will be the same way. It is only natural for them to keep on going because they are so adept of putting others before themselves, but in the long run this could wind up being very harmful to them.

  • mills

    January 28th, 2015 at 11:15 AM

    I went to a therapist once who I later heard had to retire early because she was depressed and it started to interfere with her job

  • Dan

    January 29th, 2015 at 1:53 PM

    I kind of think that the more burned out we all get, the less likely we are to see this reality for ourselves. I think that the more you get burned out then you have a hard time seeing clearly that which others can see perfectly clearly. I would think that this is going to be true no matter what profession you are in.

  • Wendy

    March 19th, 2018 at 5:50 PM

    In my experience, burnout often comes from being pressured by employers to do too much without being given access to needed resources and training, or just being expected to do too much, period (like a minimum caseload of 100 and the expectation to do at least triple the minimum, and work overtime for free to accomplish that). I’ve been fired at least twice for admitting to experiencing burnout. Another time it was a mutual decision – I couldn’t survive any longer in an an environment where I was unappreciated and told that my qualifications were useless and didn’t count (that time, the population was wrong for me too, but the program was designed very poorly and it collapsed soon after I left).

    Burnout is definitely a problem. I wish that the article dealt with how to turn burnout around and recover from it. I’ve yet to overcome severe burnout and still have a job.

  • Tara

    October 13th, 2019 at 9:08 PM

    I lead workshops on oreventing burnout for health care professionals including social workers and therapists. The symptoms are similar to PTSD and the treatment is very effective if it’s neurobiologically based like Self Regulation Therapy. Most ofnthe recommendations for prevention and treatment are insufficient and outdated. The new research should lead to new ways of building resilience. New ways of working with clients and restructuring how we work is only one part of it.

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