Preventing Burnout

November is National Hospice and Palliative Care month. This month, the work of psychologists, social workers, nurses, caregivers, and others who provide high quality care to patients coping with serious or life-threatening illness is recognized.

As a psychologist working with palliative care patients, I’m often asked what I do to prevent burnout at work. Here are some suggestions inspired by minimalism for preventing burnout. Most of these tips can apply to anyone, regardless of their occupation. Some of these I’ve been doing well, others I need to work on.

Occupational Burnout

Many people start to feel burnt out at work. Mental health providers are no exception. It is well-documented that mental health professionals face high rates of burnout (Morse et al., 2012; Paris & Hoge 2010).

Helping people manage depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, pain, and trauma can be truly rewarding work, but there is also risk for not only burnout, but also “compassion fatigue” or “secondary trauma.” 

What It’s Like To Be a Palliative Care Psychologist

You may recall that I am a psychologist specializing in oncology and palliative care. I work with people who are living with cancer and provide them with techniques to cope with physical and emotional pain so that they can have a better quality of life.

Yesterday was a tremendously sad day for me at work. I lost two young patients, both of whom had young children. It was a struggle for me to make it through the day, but I did (thanks to my good friend Stephanie for her support).

Many of my patients, trainees, and even psychologist colleagues ask how I can devote each day to working with people at end-of-life.

Photo by Ashley Rich

Honestly, I am affected by my patients. I feel joy when they are smiling and I feel grief when they are suffering. Yet as a professional I have to maintain my boundaries. I have to keep my own reactions in check so that I can be there for them. But some days, like the one I had yesterday, are harder than others.

Then when I get home, I have to be there for my children. With three kids, there is no “me time.” So how do I engage in self-care and prevent burnout?

Honestly, I’ve Been Feeling Burnt Out

I am usually good at self-care. However, over the past 3 months I:

  • Have been ill 3 times
  • As a result, have not been exercising
  • Gained 10 pounds
  • Started drinking coffee
    • I now remember that I quit because it was making me feel jittery
  • Broke out with acne
  • Lost a pair of sunglasses
    • I don’t recall ever misplacing anything before in my life!
  • And feel stressed!

So what’s been going on over the past 3 months:

At home
  • My oldest child joined a sports team
    • I rush (sometimes literally run to my car) from work to make it home in time for him to go to practice
  • My 3-year-old is acting like a “threenager”
    • If you’ve never had kids (or have blocked this period from your memory), this is when the tantrums, talking back, and overall destruction of your home is at its peak
      • Just seconds ago she took our mascot “money tree” out of its pot and is now demanding candy
  • We’ve had multiple events scheduled each day during the weekends
  • I work on the blog every night and weekend
  • Until just recently I was also breastfeeding my youngest child
At work, I am
  • Writing two manuscripts
  • Serving on 4 committees
  • Supervising trainees
  • Giving talks regularly
  • All in addition seeing patients

Each of these things is important to me. But something needs to change.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

Minimalism to save the day

Before I had my second child, I worked through lunch nearly every day in addition to coming in early, staying late, and writing grants or manuscripts on weekends.

I’ve been teaching stress management classes for 15 years. I have mastered all those techniques. But I needed a different approach to help me cope.

That’s when I found minimalism.

Contrary to popular belief, minimalism isn’t about getting rid of all your stuff. But it is about removing “clutter.”

Clutter can be things, commitments, distractions, or toxic people – anything that distracts you from what you really value.

Here are some ways minimalism has helped me manage stress, and what I think I need to start doing to prevent burnout.

Social commitments
  • Make the time for people who support and inspire me and who I hope to also support.
    • like my friend Stephanie!

 

  • However, politely decline engagements with people who do not support me
    • like the person who is always talking about him/herself and has never asked me anything about my life

 

I want to get back to my rule of only 1 social commitment per day, turning down invitations that don’t add value to my life, and try to keep one day a week free for rest.

Time Commitments
  • Stop volunteering time to come in early, stay late, and work on weekends.
    • Not only is this unsustainable, but my kids need me. My husband needs me. I need me.
    • Now, I do my best to arrive on time and leave on time.

 

  • Set aside time each morning to get organized.

 

  • Set aside time each afternoon for administrative work.

 

  • Make every effort to protect my lunch time.
    • I realize that time to decompress between patients is a need, not a want.

 

  • Prioritize. What has to get done today? What can wait until tomorrow?

 

  • Say “no” to committees or projects that don’t add value to my life.

 

  • Free up some time at home.
    • I recently weened my 2-year-old off breastfeeding.

 

  • Reevaluate self-imposed goals.
    • I decreased the number of blog posts from 4 to 3 a week
      • Sundays: general money-saving tips
      • Mid-week: psychology-related post
      • Fridays: Food Finances feature

 

I’ve been doing well at managing my time at work. Protecting lunch time is the most challenging. There are some days I have mandatory meetings. But I’ve decided not to join any more committees that meet over lunchtime.

I need to manage my time better at home. Not only in terms of limiting social commitments, but also for making time for rest and decluttering.

Physical Clutter
  • At both work and home, declutter all counters, drawers, closets, cabinets, and desks.

 

  • Scan, file, and shred documents.

 

  • Decluttering saves time finding things, makes cleaning easy, leads to fewer visual distractions, and helps me feel at peace.
    • Why do people feel so relaxed at hotels? It’s a clean and relaxing space!

 

Things have been piling up in recent months, and I want to devote some time to decluttering both my home and my office. 

Distractions
  • Single-task.
    • Research suggests that we are more productive when we focus on one thing at a time, rather than trying to multi-task.

 

  • Remove social media from my phone.
    • I also don’t have any apps or games.

 

  • No watch that lights up with every email, call, or text.
    • I don’t see how constant distractions make someone more productive.

 

  • Set phone to turn off at a designated time each night.

 

  • Turn off notifications of incoming emails.

I had been doing well at minimizing distractions at work. However, instant messaging is a huge distraction. Things have slipped through the cracks after I became distracted by an incoming message and forgot that I had not finished the task on which I was working. I need to work on that.

Emails
  • Read emails only once.
    • With no notifications of incoming emails, I have the luxury of only reading emails once.
    • When I was getting email notifications while working on other things, it not only distracted me from what I was doing but I also ended up reading everything twice: once when it arrived then again when I had time to go through my emails

 

  • Check my messages when there’s time to take action
    • Immediately respond, archive, or delete.

 

  • Reduce the number of list-serves, or have list-serve emails automatically sent to folder.

 

  • Keep inbox empty.
    • The above strategies help me keep my inbox empty or near-empty. 

 

My colleagues and trainees can tell how stressed I am by looking at my inbox. Today, I decided to clean out my inbox.

Photo by Jared Rice
Self-Care
  • Breathe
    • Practice mindfulness daily.

 

  • Hydrate
    • Drink lots of water.

 

  • Eat
    • Choose nutritious foods that make me feel good.

 

  • Sleep
    • Keep regular sleep/wake times, even on the weekends.

 

  • Exercise
    • Go for a 20-30 min walk during lunch.

 

My lunchtime walks were put on hold while I was sick. I started getting back to them this week. I want to resume exercising on nights and weekends as well, but this has been challenging to fit in with the kids’ schedules.

Boundaries
  • Most importantly for me, I keep my home life and work life separate.
    • At the office, I don’t have any pictures of my family.
    • At home, I don’t have access to my work email.

 

I’m pretty good at maintaining boundaries. Maybe a little too good. I’ve come to learn that it’s prevented me from fostering closer relationships with colleagues and trainees, but I’m working on that.

 

What are some things you do prevent burnout?

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2 thoughts on “Preventing Burnout”

  1. Hi DS! Thanks so much for this very important post! I appreciate the attention you are bringing to caregivers! I love all of the immediate, actionable items you have suggested for self-care. This was definitely something I struggled with when my husband was diagnosed with leukemia. I was emotionally exhausted for a long time, and it took me hitting rock bottom before I realized something had to change. Burnout is definitely a real thing that caregivers should be aware of. Take care as well! Hugs! Dragon Gal

    1. Hi Dragon Gal! Yes, there’s often a lot of focus on the patients and not enough recognition of the suffering faced by caregivers. I appreciate the fact that a cancer diagnosis can sometimes be more difficult for the loved ones than the patients. I work with so many caregivers who devote their lives to their loved one, and self-care is often last on their list. I am touched by the stories you’ve shared about caregiving on Dragons on Fire We all need a reminder now and then that we have to take care of ourselves.

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