Behavioral Health Providers Are Burning Out or Rusting Out
Managing COVID-19 as a behavioral health professional.
The rise of COVID-19 has flipped the working world on its head, adding unprecedented amounts of stress to some, while leaving others suddenly stripped of the responsibilities they had before. For mental health professionals, there is an added twist to this situation—not only are we managing the consequences of a global pandemic in our own lives, but we are helping our clients navigate their own experiences.
Since the beginning of quarantine, reports of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc. have increased significantly, as a result of anything from financial insecurity, to social isolation, to fears about contracting the virus itself. Behavioral health providers have been there to guide individuals through these issues, but many are starting to feel the repercussions of handling the mental side of COVID-19, and are left feeling burned out or, in some cases, the less talked about rusted out.
So, as behavioral health providers, how can we know if we’ve burned or rusted ourselves out during COVID-19, and what can be done to give not only our clients the best possible scenario but ourselves as well?
Burned Out vs. Rusted Out: What’s the Difference, and Why Does It Matter?
Burn/rust out can take a toll on the provider’s mental health leading to poor client care and mistakes being made.Source: Oscar Keys on Unsplash
Burnout is a word that is ubiquitous in the working world. While nearly every scholar on the subject has their own definition, it can generally be understood as overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, a sense of ineffectiveness, and a lack of accomplishment, as a result of chronic and excessive stress.
People get burned out in a number of ways; maybe they feel like they don’t have any control in their jobs, or the amount on their plate is way too overwhelming. A person suffering from burnout may begin to feel extremely unmotivated or anxious, and their performance at work might begin to decline. They might also become physically sick more often or take that work-related stress home to family or friends.
While burnout is a pretty regular concern in the working world, a less common relative of burnout has come to be known as “rust out.” Burnout comes from overwhelming stress, but rust out stems from boredom, monotony in routine, or a sense of dissatisfaction with a career. Like burnout, feeling rusted out can lead to a drop in an individual’s performance, lack of motivation, and even mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
It should be noted that burnout and rust out are often the result of a process, not a single, stressful event; that means that seven months into quarantine, we are starting to see that process come to fruition, and as behavioral health providers, being aware of both burnout and rust out, what the differences/similarities are, and what causes them is incredibly important. When we are burned or rusted out, our mental health, physical health, interpersonal relationships, etc. can take a serious blow—and so can our ability to provide care for our clients, especially now.
The Role of COVID-19
Burnout and rust out are certainly not new concepts—but the impact of COVID-19 most definitely is. Being a behavioral health provider in the midst of a global pandemic has strengthened feelings of burnout and rust out from a ton of different angles.
Depression, stress, anxiety, family dynamics, grief, isolation, and so much more as brought tons of individuals into therapy, while potentially amplifying the concerns of those already in it. In order to accommodate those mentally and emotionally impacted by the pandemic, many behavioral health providers are taking on heavier caseloads.
What’s more is that even though anxiety or grief are not new issues for behavioral health providers to work with, the circumstances around them are unprecedented. In some cases, behavioral health providers might even begin taking on the symptoms of their clients, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion, the more they work with COVID-19-related cases. All of these factors have no doubt put plenty of mental health professionals on the path to burnout.
On the flip side of that coin, some behavioral health providers may start feeling rusted out by COVID-19. As mentioned earlier, rusting out comes from that sense of monotony, dissatisfaction, boredom, or suddenly losing the responsibilities you are used to. While it may seem impossible for a behavioral health provider to be rusting out during a time when so many are struggling with their mental health, it isn’t as unlikely as we think; in some cases, behavioral health providers might have lost clients due to financial instability, or lack of access to telehealth.
Additionally, being in quarantine means being in the same space day in and day out, which can create a sense of monotony and mental exhaustion. Even the content of therapy may be rusting out behavioral health providers—current and new clients’ issues have, naturally, shifted toward pandemic-related concerns. It is very possible that after nearly seven months of focusing on the subject matter surrounding COVID-19, behavioral health providers may be feeling as though they are caught in a cycle.
Combatting Burnout and Rust Out
Alisa Anton on Unsplash
There are things that can be done to combat burn/rust out. Being proactive is essential.Source: Alisa Anton on Unsplash
Knowing that burnout and rust out are very relevant in the lives of mental health professionals today, it is important for us to not only recognize the signs, symptoms, and possible causes but also how to both prevent and manage feelings of burnout and rust out in our lives.
Prioritize Self Care. As behavioral health providers, we have all heard time and again how important it is to care for ourselves, not only our clients, and it is not uncommon to think, “Yeah, but with what time?!” It can be a challenge to find time for ourselves, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed already, but setting aside even just a few minutes a day to focus on we enjoy is absolutely crucial in the fight against burnout and rust out. Maybe that’s reading for fun, calling a friend, or taking time to practice meditation. The little things we do for ourselves, especially now, give us a much-needed chance to mentally and physically reset.
Seek Out Your Own Therapy. Behavioral health providers are usually encouraged to seek therapy of their own for a number of reasons, and COVID-19-related burnout and rust out are no exception. At the end of the day, behavioral health providers are also people dealing with the mental and emotional consequences of a global pandemic; that means that we need help navigating our concerns just as much as our clients do.
Turn to Social Supports. When we start to notice symptoms of burnout or rust out, turning to trusted social supports can be a way to remind ourselves that we are not carrying our burden alone. In this case, speaking with colleagues or supervisors can be especially helpful; in some instances, you may receive helpful guidance, but in others, you may learn that others in the field are going through a similar experience.
Change Up Your Routine. Being quarantined in the same space all day every day can quickly drain our spirits. By switching up your routine now and again—moving your workspace, trying a new exercise, picking up a new hobby—it will help reinstate a bit of creativity into each day, which can battle against those feelings of monotony and boredom and may even give a much-needed boost of motivation.
After seven months of quarantine, social distancing, and seemingly perpetual uncertainty, it is no surprise that the weight of being a behavioral health provider amid a pandemic is taking its toll on many. As the impact of COVID-19 continues, we as behavioral health professionals need to ready to care for our own mental and emotional wellbeing, not just those of our clients.
Originally Posted on Psychology Today