The American Physical Therapy Association defines job burnout as, “a feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion, coupled with a sense of frustration and failure.” Caused by workplace stress, burnout gets in the way of therapists’ productivity and can lead to a high turnover rate at your facility. And, unfortunately, burned-out therapists are less equipped to provide the high-quality care that patients demand and deserve. Luckily, there are steps you can take to help identify and prevent burnout among your staff, and reverse it before it causes any serious damage. Take some time to understand what can cause burnout, and what steps you can take to address it within your team.

Recognizing burnout within your facility

If you notice the following, you may be dealing with therapists who are on the verge of burnout. Initial signs of burnout include the following: defeated or depressed attitude, talking about coworkers or administrators in a negative way, a decrease in output or quality of patient care, and increased absenteeism. These behaviors may seem common, and as an occasional incident (once or twice a year), they are.  Because of this, well-meaning managers may excuse these behaviors as normal responses to stress, and fail to address them as potential burnout.  If these behaviors become persistent, (more than once a month) they should be addressed immediately.  Determining the source of the stress that is causing these behaviors may prevent a therapist leaving for a position with another facility.

Factors that can cause job burnout for therapists

Therapists who are susceptible to burnout often share a similar personality traits. These traits come in handy when working for a 4.0 GPA to get into grad school, but may clash with the realities of the workplace. Therapists are often highly caring and sensitive individuals who love helping people. If they are also perfectionistic and hardworking, their persistence may backfire –instead of taking a break when they need one, they push harder to accomplish their goals.  Unrealistically high expectations of themselves, and unrealistic demands from administration can work together to drive a therapist into the ground. In addition, the following workplace stressors can make the therapy profession a perfect set up for burnout.

  • Unrealistic treatment goals. It can be difficult for therapists to accept that some patients may improve but not return to “normal.” Therapists often work with patients in crisis, and absorb some of the grief in their patient’s circumstances.
  • Unrelenting patient load/not enough time with each patient. One definition of stress is working to complete a task without the tools or time that it requires. Unrealistic productivity expectations create a constant state of stress. Therapists handle fluctuations in patient caseloads every now and then, but too large of a caseload over an extended period of time is one of the largest contributors to therapist burnout.
  • Frustration with lack of treatment success. Working with patients and seeing little improvement can be frustrating for therapists. An employee may become discouraged, if he or she begins to feel that his or her efforts aren’t yielding positive results.
  • High Ethical standards. Highly principled personalities may experience burn out faster than easy going personalities. If therapists feel that he/she is being asked to bill or treat patients in any way that seems unethical by his or her definition of what is legal or appropriate, he or she will experience constant internal stress.
  • Appropriately confronting disrespect. Interactions with disrespectful or demanding patients or family members cause stress. Experience and Support from co-workers can help therapists learn how to handle these situations.
  • Staffing Shortages. Overwork causes burnout. Extra overtime or weekends with out compensation days are expensive to both the facility and the employee. The facility pays time and half; the employee misses out on much needed rest. Staffing shortages lead to burnout, which causes even greater staffing shortages. Interrupt this cycle by hiring temporary workers to fill your shortage.
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How you can help your therapists avoid or overcome job burnout

As a rehabilitation department manager, you can take steps to help your therapists reverse—or prevent—job burnout. Here’s what you can do:

  • Have regular department meetings. You should meet with your therapists on a regular basis to review patient status and caseload. Your therapists will be able to let you know if they need help.
  • Balance patient loads between therapists. Your therapists should have mostly even caseloads, give or take a few patients. You may wish to redistribute patients based on difficulty of cases or experience level of therapists.
  • Hire new staff—either full time or temporary. For support during vacations or leaves of absence, consider supplementing your team with temporary therapists. If you feel your staff is chronically short-handed, it may be time to hire more therapists to join your team.
  • Demand therapists take all breaks. Throughout the workday, it’s important for your therapists to take their 15-minute breaks and their lunch hour. This can give them time to breathe and clear their heads, especially after difficult patients.
  • Offer adequate vacation time. The ability to rest and rejuvenate is critical to an employee’s job performance. Be sure your therapists are given adequate vacation and sick time, and encourage them to use it.

Please share your expertise by commenting below

What tactics do you use to your keep your staff healthy and free from burnout?

Have you personally experienced burnout? What factors led to your work place stress? What helped you recover? Sharing your stories will help other facilities and therapists avoid these troubles. Thanks!

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