Running start … to a great career: Avoiding burnout
Use these tips to keep from burning yourself out, both professionally and personally.
As an early career practitioner, it can be easy to take on too much: You may be building a practice, making a name for yourself, starting a family — all at the same time. This buildup of commitments at the start of your career puts psychologists at a higher risk for burnout, warns Katherine Dorociak, PhD, a neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. In a 2017 study in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Dorociak and colleagues found that stress related to work demands was especially pronounced for early career psychologists who felt over-burdened.
“There’s a never-ending plethora of stuff to do, both at work and at home. I could probably work 24 hours a day and still not be finished,” says Meghan Prato, PsyD, a Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, private practitioner who also has two small children. The psychology profession rewards that kind of devotion, adds Prato, who chairs the Pennsylvania Psychological Association’s Colleague Assistance Committee. “You definitely get praised for all the things you take on — the clients, the articles you publish, the presentations you do,” she says. “You don’t get pats on the back for the bubble bath you took or the friend you saw.”
That’s why it’s crucial to establish good self-care habits early, says Dorociak, and part of self-care is setting a reasonable schedule for yourself.
To create a schedule with more breathing room and less chaos:
- Figure out your ideal “volume” and change it up if needed. Decide how many hours you want to work each week, then add personal tasks — including self-care — into the time that remains, suggests Prato, who does assessments on the side. Prato’s ideal work schedule is 50 hours a week, with two days off. If one week she has fewer patients than expected, she can add another assessment or two to the mix. But don’t forget to check in with yourself. Your ideal schedule may change over time. Monitor your own abilities and limits and regularly assess whether your schedule is still working for you or if a pile-up of obligations is making your stress unmanageable, says Dorociak.
- Block off “me time” on your calendar. Dorociak admits she sometimes spends Sundays working on a presentation for the following week or some other obligation. But Saturdays, she says, are “sacred.” “I reserve Saturdays for my life,” she says. “I know I’ll be more engaged and happier with my work and my personal life if I take this time for myself.” Because that time off improves the quality of her work the rest of the week, Dorociak is disciplined about preventing encroachments. She also incorporates that strategy into her daily schedule. Dorociak always takes a workday break for lunch and sets aside 30 minutes each day to whatever she wants, whether it’s going for a run, doing yoga or meditating.
- Learn how to say no. When you’re first starting out, it can be really hard to say no, whether it’s because you’re afraid to disappoint someone or excited about an opportunity, says Jonathan Jenkins, PsyD, a Boston-area private practitioner, staff psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and father of a very young child. But being transparent about what you can and can’t take on makes setting boundaries easier, says Jenkins, who uses a collaborative approach. “I go to the people who matter most and present them with opportunities and challenges and say, ‘How do we — not I — work together and come up with a solution for incorporating this into my life or taking it out?’”
- Practice telehealth. Incorporating telehealth into your practice can enhance access for patients and make your own schedule more manageable, says Jenkins. Jenkins finds telehealth is most useful when he and patients are stranded at home during New England winters, but it can also alleviate the pressure that comes from commuting through high-traffic areas.
- Outsource your to-do list. Delegating tasks you find onerous — whether it’s paying someone to run errands, hiring an accountant to do your taxes or just ordering take-out for dinner — frees up space in your schedule, says Jenkins. Psychologists can also purchase software that automates several practice tasks — like sending patients appointment reminders — to help spend less mental energy, he says.
- Finally, love what you do. “When my daughters say they missed me on Tuesday or Thursday night, I tell them about the awesome thing I got to do — help an awesome person get better,” says Prato.