Special Education

Occupational Therapy Burnout: Signs and Prevention

If you already work as a school-based occupational therapist, you probably know how rewarding it can be. Therapists help children reach their academic potential, but that’s not all. They also make a difference in a child’s overall wellbeing.

Although working as a school-based OT is fulfilling, it can also be stressful and has many challenges. Unfortunately, some therapists become burnt-out from the stress. Understanding why burnout occurs and what you can do to prevent it can help you stay on the right track.

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a physical and mental state of exhaustion that is typically a result of continued and chronic work-related stress. Work-related stress can be caused by many situations, such as working in a high-pressure environment, working long hours, and having a heavy workload. Burnout can lead to feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and unable to effectively reach job-related goals and expectations.

As a school-based Occupational Therapist, many things can lead to burnout. You may be susceptible to burnout if you are consistently putting excess pressures on yourself, managing large or difficult caseloads, or feeling unsupported by school administrative staff or colleagues in your current job. It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout, so you can take the necessary steps to combat and recover from burnout.

Why Do School-Based Occupational Therapists Burn Out?

Several factors can increase the chances a school-based occupational therapist will develop burnout. Hopefully, your employer is doing what they can to create a supportive, healthy work environment. But it’s helpful to be aware of what contributes to professional burnout, so you can prevent it from occurring. Consider some of the following stressors, which can lead to burnout:

Unmanageable student workloads: Although school-based OTs may have to deal with fluctuations in caseloads, if you’re always swamped, it can lead to burnout.

Unrealistic treatment plans: Treatment plans should be attainable and realistic without limiting potential, but treatment goals that are not doable will only lead to frustration.

Lack of school support: If you don’t have support from administration and staff, it’s easy to feel you are in it alone and develop burnout. A supportive work environment should allow you to discuss difficult situations and provide feedback and advice.

Signs of Burnout in School-Based Occupation Therapists

There are many symptoms and signs of burnout that you should be aware of to help you identify it within yourself as well as others. If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms or if any signs of burnout begin to appear in your life, it is important to begin taking steps to preventing further burnout and reversing it. Here are a just a few signs of burnout you should look out for: 

  • Pessimistic or Negative Attitude About Work
  • Difficulty Concentrating and Experiencing Brain Fog
  • Feeling Overwhelmed Regularly
  • Feeling Exhausted and Tired
  • Irritability or Anger with Students and Patients
  • Poor Job Performance 
  • Anxiety That Disrupts Your Day

Preventing Burnout

It’s helpful to take responsibility for preventing burnout. If you become burned out, it not only affects your ability to help your students. It can also affect your wellbeing and overall quality of life. Be aware of the signs that you’re starting to feel burnout which includes:

  • Decreased interest in work
  • Calling in sick more often
  • Irritability
  • Loss of productivity
  • Depression
  • Decreased compassion

If you think you are starting to feel burnt out from work, talk to someone. Whether you talk to your supervisor, school counselor or another mental health professional, recognizing the problem is the first step. There may be things you can do, such as decrease your caseload, cut back on hours or take a break from the daily grind that helps you cope.

When it comes to professional burnout, prevention is your best bet. Even with a stressful job, there are ways to prevent professional burnout. Develop treatment plans that include small, measurable goals. Working with students and seeing little improvement can be frustrating for school occupational therapists. Having mini-goals may help both therapists and students stay motivated as they see progress.

It’s also helpful to work together as a team with teachers, parents, and other school therapists. Working together will provide you with support and camaraderie, which can go a long way in preventing burnout.

Take time away from work to recharge. Even the most dedicated occupational therapist needs time to relax. Find ways to let go of stress, such as exercise, hanging out with friends, or enjoying a hobby.

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