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Physical Therapist Burnout: What You Need to Know

Whether you’re a physical therapist or physical therapy assistant, you are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects rapid growth in your field through 2026, and you’re not immune to physical therapy burnout. After all, you work with people who are experiencing pain and complex medical issues every day. Learn to spot the signs of physical therapy burnout and explore ways to combat its effects.


How common is burnout in the medical field?

The unfortunate truth is that the feelings associated with burnout are becoming more common among medical professionals each year. The best definition of burnout states it is “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job” and includes “the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.”

A 2015 study that surveyed more than 6,800 physicians found that more than half of respondents were experiencing professional burnout. Researchers found that the number of physicians with symptoms of burnout increased in 2014 versus three years prior, and dissatisfaction with work-life balance was a leading driver of these results.


Signs of physical therapy burnout you should recognize

If you or someone you know may be suffering from physical therapy burnout, it’s important to understand the signs. Burnout can manifest itself in many ways, but the most common include:

  • - Feeling of emotional detachment from work-related activities
  • - Overwhelming exhaustion before, during and after your shift
  • - Increased cynicism about your professional future or current role
  • - Inability to focus on tasks at work
  • - Feeling of being stuck in your position
  • - Irritability with patients and co-workers
  • - Physical aches and pains that don’t have a medical cause
  • - Ongoing feelings of dread when it’s time to get ready for work
  • - Difficulty falling or staying asleep despite feeling exhausted
  • - Unexplained appetite changes
  • - Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • - Poor productivity or performance at work
  • - Repeated or frequent physical illness and absenteeism

Implications of physical therapy burnout

It’s important not to make a mistake by thinking burnout only affects you; it can also affect the quality of care you provide your patients and negatively impact your relationship with co-workers. A 2016 study sought to review the relationship between healthcare worker burnout and patient safety. Researchers found a correlation between workers with moderate to high levels of occupational burnout and the rate of medical errors.

Interpersonal relationships can also suffer when you are experiencing physical therapy burnout. In addition to its effect on patient care, burnout can place undue stress on work relationships, which further complicates the interpersonal dynamics in your role. Because you rely on being part of a treatment team, increased negativity may begin to negatively impact your colleagues.

Strategies to reduce feelings of physical therapy burnout and enjoy your job

In 2014, researchers studying occupational burnout suggested that employers could offer interventional solutions, such as a reduced workload, flexible shifts or more control over daily activities. The problem with this suggestion is that you — the professional who feels the greatest effects of burnout — have no control over what your employer does or doesn’t do.

Essentially, you can’t change that which you do not control, so tackling the problem from this perspective is of little use. Here are a few things you can do to regain job satisfaction and shake the symptoms of physical therapy burnout:

  • - Don’t always say “yes.” Put differently, know your limits at work. As a professional, you want to do what’s best for the team and stay productive, but taking on every little task thrown your way will eventually corrode your sense of job satisfaction. Delegate what you can to others, and focus on only the most important tasks at hand.
  • - Take an active role in your professional advancement. Research conducted among physical therapists found that 60 percent scored low when asked about personal accomplishment. Don’t be a statistic. If you’re unhappy where you are, think about other professional interests. Maybe there is a specialization you want to explore or an advanced degree you want to attain. Set goals, like taking required tests or finding a mentor, and get the ball rolling.
  • - Treat your body right. You spend your entire career helping others achieve physical wellness, but how are you caring for your own body? If you’re grabbing unhealthy meals on-the-run, sitting on the couch at home instead of getting exercise and slacking in the personal care department, your feelings of burnout will only become magnified. Plan healthy meals, use your breaks to get in a 5 or 10-minute walk and spend time focusing on you.
  • - Prioritize work-life balance. When you’re working long hours and struggling to keep your personal priorities straight, it’s difficult to make yourself have fun, spend time with family or engage in hobbies you enjoy. But, if you don’t make these activities a priority, who will? Start small by dedicating two focused hours per week to painting, cycling, reading, dining out with friends or any other activity you enjoy.
  • - Consider an organizational change. Sometimes you’ve spent so long working with the same people in the same facility and you simply need something new. The good news is that your experience in physical therapy is highly desired in top-notch organizations across the country. If you’re craving a new experience, look into short-term or travel assignments with a new company.

Before you reach the point of no return and ditch your career altogether, take our advice to heart. Remember that you entered the field of physical therapy to help others while enjoying a sense of professional accomplishment. If you feel you’ve lost enthusiasm about your career and are experiencing physical therapy burnout, take steps now to reignite your passion for physical therapy.

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