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What to do about Burnout?

Ever wondered if there’s anything you can actually do about burnout?

It can feel hopeless but there are a number of ways to address it. Here we’re going to explore one possible approach to overcoming burnout.

Wait, what’s burnout again?

That can be tricky to answer. There are multiple avenues to explore when attempting to define this thing we call burnout. One of the challenges of defining the concept is that it typically involves aspects of a variety of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and panic disorders. Here, I’ll use the term to highlight someone who is experiencing:

  • A lack of satisfaction in their work

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Negative attitudes and separation from the vocation

And why do we need to talk about it?

Burnout is important to discuss for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it affects those working in helping professions as frontline workers to an exponential degree. This includes and is not limited to:

  • First responders (Emergency response workers and firefighters)

  • Social workers

  • Nurses

  • Teachers

  • Doctors

This is problematic because the folks most at risk often went into their careers because they are empathetic, caring, and compassionate individuals. Therefore, it is important to note some of the signs and risk factors for burnout so we can be vigilant in navigating if we are at risk for burnout. Some risk factors include:

  • High stress at the workplace

  • Increasing cuts to funding

  • Dangerous work environments

  • Understaffing

  • Isolation in the workspace

  • Limited access to support

  • Sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia existing within workspaces

What would therapy look like?

Even if it’s challenging or downright dysfunctional, we can’t always change our immediate environments to suit our needs. There are, however, practices that can be applied in everyday life that fundamentally impact how we manage stress within challenging environments. One approach is applying cognitive behavioural skills and practices. It might look like this:

1. Explore phase

The beginning of therapy would be around assessing and identifying triggers such as:

  • Organization-related challenges (budget cuts, system gaps)

  • Client-related challenges (vicarious trauma, challenging population)

  • Personal challenges (emotional demands)

  • Setting-related challenges (high caseload, dangerous work environments)

By identifying some of these stressors we will be able to target what is challenging us most at work, at home and in our relationships and adapt and respond appropriately. Although, we will not be able to change all the factors contributing to burnout, by identifying some risk factors it will help us focus in and eventually identify areas we can intervene.

2. Identify phase

The next stage involves cognitive restructuring, which is a fancy word for identifying our moods, thoughts, physical sensations and behaviours. This would look like identifying:

  • What situation triggered emotions

  • What are thoughts and beliefs tied to situations

  • What feelings and emotions are prevalent

  • What behaviours are present (lack of concentration, in ability to sleep) and noting how these situations trigger “dysfunctional thinking”

By first identifying these triggers we can then look inwards and highlight that there is some dysfunctional thinking that causes us greater challenges. Therefore, therapy would look to:

  • Assess the advantages and disadvantages of our thought patterns

  • The impacts our thoughts have on our emotions

  • Labeling cognitive distortions that we hold (overgeneralizing, mental filters, etc.)

  • Identifying implicit rules and assumptions we carry

  • Generating alternative viewpoints

3. Armour phase

The last stage would be to assist in enhancing protective factors. This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Exploring areas of “purposeful” self-care

  • Exploring self-regulation skills like deep breathing, meditation, grounding exercises

This isn’t the only way therapy for burnout can be modelled, but it’s one way that it can be used to assist those most affected by burnout. The goal is to build a strong self so that we are better able to take care of ourselves and those that we assist in our careers, families, and relationships.

References:
Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311


Sean works from a strengths-based perspective — centering your unique strengths and supporting you as you build on them— and uses modalities such as cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness-based approaches, narrative therapy, and rational emotive behavioural therapy.

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