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Phoenix Forward magazine

How to avoid burnout in the helping professions

“People who work in helping professions [can be] prone to professional burnout,” says Katherine Martinez, a licensed marriage and family therapist and an instructor in the marriage, family and child therapy program at the University of Phoenix® Central Valley Campus in California.

“Social workers, teachers, police officers, health care professionals, in-home caregivers — they all need to focus on strategies that will offset the stresses of being of service to others.”

Here, Martinez offers four ways to avoid burnout if you work in a helping profession: 


Maintain a positive outlook.

Dismissing negative thoughts is one of the best strategies for taking care of yourself, Martinez says, particularly if you work in the mental health profession. Since you deal with emotional suffering, you risk your own physical and emotional burnout. That in turn can undermine your mission to help clients.

“Positive thinking [helps] keep anxiety at bay,” Martinez notes, “but you have to really work to change pessimistic ideas and attitudes into positive thoughts.”

One way to diffuse negativity is to keep what she calls a “stress diary,” in which you can detail what bothers you and when, and then how you respond. “Recognizing your patterns will help you let go of stress and lessen the chances of burnout,” Martinez explains. Meditation, yoga and deep breathing also can help you banish negative thoughts, she adds.

Exercise regularly.

Keeping active, Martinez says, “increases energy and creates a sense of well-being. It can also help tire you out so you’ll get a better night’s sleep.”

She notes that the main challenge for people in helping professions who work odd-hour shifts, such as police officers, is fitting regular exercise into their schedules. Working out with friends or colleagues on the same shift can help keep you motivated and stick to a routine, she suggests.

Starting out slowly is also a good idea. “You don’t have to walk a mile on day one of your exercise regime,” Martinez says. “It’s OK to just get around the block that first day and add a little more distance each day.”

Know how you function best.

“Don’t like getting up early?” Martinez asks. “Don’t take a job that might require a 6 am shift,” such as in-home caregiver or adult day care worker.

If you’re less stressed when you have a to-do list, make one and follow it, she advises. “Don’t beat yourself up at the end of the day if you haven’t crossed every item off your list,” she emphasizes. “Just move those over to tomorrow’s list.”

On the other hand, if managing a daily list of tasks to complete feels like one more burden, don’t do it.

Talk to your boss about your workload.

It’s an occupational hazard in the helping professions that you can become so used to being concerned about the welfare of others that you neglect your own needs. Sometimes this means you take on more job responsibilities than you can handle. But try not to let yourself become overwhelmed, Martinez cautions.

“Keep an eye on your workload, and if you feel like you’re expected to do too much, talk to your boss,” she suggests. Prepare a list of options that your employer can consider for reducing your duties or shifting some of them to another worker.

“You’re not doing your clients or your colleagues any service if you come into work burned out and miserable,” she says.