Mental 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
- 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 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150109045554.htm
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