Work-related stress can be a factor in many professions, but becomes an even more significant concern when high-pressure careers, such as those in the behavioral health field, are already facing workforce shortages. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout was prevalent among healthcare workers and frontline employees.
People facing burnout due to chronic workplace stress often deal with depersonalization, exhaustion and energy depletion, a reduced sense of personal achievement and more.
Recent estimates find that 50 percent of behavioral health providers report feeling burnt out due to high levels of stress, low salaries, perceived lack of career advancement opportunities, and increased caseloads. This adds to the problem of healthcare workforce shortages, with new survey data from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, conducted by The Harris Poll, finding that the vast majority (83%) of the nation’s behavioral health workforce believes that without public policy changes, provider organizations won’t be able to meet the demand for mental health or substance use treatment and care. The dangerous imbalance between demand for mental healthcare and lack of qualified professionals can be rectified by not only caring for those who are working in the field but also by adding more trained professionals.
So what steps can we take to prevent burnout among behavioral health workers?
- 1. Understand the signs of burnout. Burnout can feel similar to stress, but where stress is temporary or situational, burnout typically won’t ease up until action is taken to resolve it. As defined by the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout has three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. It can be difficult for healthcare workers to distinguish between “normal” feelings of mental exhaustion and detachment and actual burnout, due to the complexities of dealing with human suffering, struggles and pain. Burnout often feels overwhelming and long-term, while stress feels less permanent.
- 2. Make wellness a priority. Healthcare workers are often so focused on the health of those they’re caring for that they forget to care for their own mental and physical health, too. However, it’s important to note that if we are going to continue to face the challenges and complexities in our careers and do the important work of helping those in need, we must first take care of ourselves. This means taking preventative measures to care for yourself before burnout sets in by routinely exercising and eating well, checking in on your mental state, getting outside for vitamin D, connecting with loved ones regularly and taking time to do the things you love.
- 3. Engage with and encourage peer support. The pressure felt among healthcare workers can be intense for a number of reasons, and the support from colleagues can help relieve some of that burden. For healthcare workers, connecting to peers who understand the daily challenges and frustrations of the profession can be invaluable. Mutual feelings of vulnerability combined with shared experiences can help create strong bonds so that colleagues can better support one another, and also recognize when a peer needs support through their own challenges.
- 4. Know and respect your personal boundaries. When you know you need to rest or take time off, don’t push those feelings aside. Speak with your supervisor or team and determine how to make it happen. Admitting that you’re feeling burnt out may feel like it’s at odds with your dedication to helping others, but you’re not alone. Your peers understand the nuances of working in the field, and can help you take the necessary steps to avoid burnout.
With well-managed stress and self-care routines, even a high-stress job likely won’t lead to burnout. Protect your wellbeing and continue on your journey to helping others live their healthiest lives while you live yours!