If you provide therapy to a client dealing with overwhelm, stress, or burnout, chances are you might encourage them to consider taking some time off. When working with someone who continues to delay vacations and holidays, or frequently takes on more than they can easily handle, you might gently point out some problems associated with overwork and suggest potential benefits of rest and relaxation.
As a mental health professional, you likely have plenty of good things to say about self-care, but do you take your own advice? You need time away from work, just like everyone else. Health care professionals face high rates of burnout and compassion fatigue, so it’s essential to take a vacation, at least occasionally. This allows you to support your own emotional well-being and continue to provide the highest level of care.
Due to the nature of your sensitive work with clients, however, you will need to address a few important considerations when planning time away.
5 Vacation Tips for Therapists
Before going on vacation, you’ll have to develop a plan to cover your absence. You can leave your practice (and clients) for a short time, but not without giving clients some notice. Think of how you’d handle vacation if you worked in an office. You’d submit a request and let your direct supervisor and coworkers know when you planned to be away. If you just left for vacation without telling anyone, you’d likely come back to find you no longer had a job.
Therapy work is often emotionally intense and deeply personal. It’s typically also grounded in a strong therapeutic relationship, and the damage some clients may sustain from feeling abandoned by their therapist without notice can set back months of work. Although you don’t need permission from your clients to take vacation, you do have a responsibility—an ethical obligation, in fact—to let them know when you plan to be away.
Your vacation should relax you. Planning it shouldn’t cause undue stress, either. Using the tips below as a pre-vacation checklist can help you feel secure in the knowledge you’ve done everything you can to make your absence easier for your clients.
1. Notify clients well in advance.
If you’ll be away for a week or two, let your clients know a month in advance. It’s best to notify them in more than one way. For example, you might send an email and also bring it up at the beginning of your next session. You may also want to prepare a printed letter (unless you prefer to go paperless) to give clients.
Remind your clients of your vacation 2 weeks before you go. The week before, you may want to give them one last reminder and also discuss what to do if they need to see someone while you’re away. Make sure everyone you work with understands they will not be able to get in touch with you during your vacation.
If you have a planned vacation within 3 months, you may also want to let any new clients you begin working with know about your upcoming time off as a courtesy.
2. Set up out-of-office replies and messages.
Before you leave on vacation, create an automatic reply for your email account and change your voicemail message. These messages should let anyone calling know:
- You’re currently unavailable.
- The date you return to office.
- Whom to call in case of an emergency (mention the emergency room, but also include a name and number for the colleague covering your practice).
An out-of-office reply can serve as a reminder for any current clients who may have forgotten their therapist is on vacation. But they can also benefit potential clients looking for a therapist. Depending on what they want help with and the urgency of their distress, they may try back when you return or consider other practitioners.
If you aren’t accepting new clients, you may want to mention this in your out-of-office replies. Without this information, some people may wait to try and schedule an appointment with you when you return to office.
3. Find a colleague who can help with emergencies.
You hope nothing goes wrong while you’re on vacation, of course, but you also have to prepare for the possibility that one of your clients could have a crisis, experience a setback, or just really need to talk to a counselor. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your vacation. It does mean you should find one or two trusted colleagues who can see anyone who needs help while you’re away. These colleagues can handle crisis calls or see clients in case of emergency.
If your vacation will last longer than 2 weeks, you may want to consider asking clients whether they’d like to see someone else for their weekly session while you’re on vacation. Some clients may not mind missing a few sessions, but others may anticipate needing weekly therapy, even with a different therapist.
If any of the people you work with do choose to meet with another counselor while you’re away, schedule some time to discuss any important or relevant details with your colleague, so they can go into the session with some prior knowledge. Sharing information about therapy progress with another trained therapist for the purpose of treatment does not violate HIPAA, but you should still let your clients know you’ve done so.
4. Take care of routine business around your office.
No one enjoys coming back to unfinished administrative tasks. After time away, it’s sometimes difficult to remember where you left off. While the last few days of work can be rushed and stressful, set aside time on your last day or two in office to take care of mail, scheduling, billing, and so on.
Knowing you’ll return to a clean desktop will make your vacation even more relaxing. Just try not to think about your email inbox!
5. Disconnect your devices.
While you’re on vacation, make it a goal to avoid emails or calls from work. If you continue to work while out of office, you aren’t really taking a true vacation.
You may find it difficult to completely avoid work, depending on what happens with your clients while you’re away. If the colleague covering you tries to get in touch, you may want to check in, for example. But at the very least, limit the number of times you check work messages to once or twice each day. Check daily at the same time, and respond only to the true emergencies. Everything else can wait until you’re back at work.
If you’re still thinking, “I can’t leave my clients. How can I take a vacation?”, try to remember that time away is an essential part of caring for yourself. Just follow a few key guidelines and make sure to keep your clients informed, and there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a vacation that leaves you recharged and at your best, ready to continue providing compassionate guidance and support.
- Rosechandler, A. (2016, September 8). Take all your vacation days: Lessons learned on days off. American Counseling Association. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/news/aca-blogs/aca-member-blogs/aca-member-blogs/2016/09/08/take-all-your-vacation-days-lessons-learned-on-days-off
- Shallcross, L. (2011, January 17). Taking care of yourself as a counselor. Counseling Today. Retrieved from https://ct.counseling.org/2011/01/taking-care-of-yourself-as-a-counselor
- Zur, O. (n.d.). Taking care of the caretaker: How to avoid psychotherapists’ burnout. Zur Institute. Retrieved from https://www.zurinstitute.com/burnout