COVID PANDEMIC NOTE
The ongoing global pandemic continues to create tremendous disruption and stress for therapists and clients alike. While this post was written pre-pandemic and has a “regular life” tone, we need to pay as much – if not more – attention to taking care of ourselves and others with high quality nurturing, good boundaries, creativity and innovation.
WISHING YOU WELL-BEING AND CALM
You may love your work, but find your job simply cannot be done.
Not if you were to truly accomplish all that was expected of you and all that you expected of yourself. We live in a culture that values productivity and perfection, and we are becoming increasingly focused on work over play. If you pick up just about any business book or article about productivity, you will discover that rest and wellbeing are actually really important to productivity, yet this is not reflected in the work habits of most of us.
It would be fantastic if the health professions modeled balance and self-care in the working world, but sadly, they don’t. Both medical and mental health disciplines run rampant with burnout. Not only does this impact health care professionals, but it also compromises the care given.
Therapy jobs vary greatly, but it is very common for therapists to feel that “this job isn’t possible!”
And if this is your sense, you’re probably right. Therapists are expected to provide many hours of quality clinical service, complete extensive and often exacting documentation of their work, coordinate care both within and outside the treatment setting and attend to many other administrative duties. Often with limited support. And, don’t forget, this is in the context of a job that is incredibly emotionally and intellectually intense and complex.
Many therapists are unwilling to compromise the care they give, and often go far above and beyond. And doing the clinical work is where the passion is – the fulfillment, the meaning. But then there are all the other responsibilities too. Many therapists don’t want to compromise with those either, and so go above and beyond or feel badly about not doing a better job.
But, what if your job really isn’t possible? At least not in the 35 – 40 hours it’s allotted or without impeding on the rest of your life. What if the culture of mental health treatment in general is askew and the expectations of therapist work are really not sustainable? And what if many many other therapists are facing the same dilemmas?
What can you do about this problem?
First, see if you can let yourself acknowledge that it really is a problem, and the problem isn’t you or your inability to figure out how to make the impossible work. This raises two new questions: How can you take care of yourself in this situation? And, how can the system be changed? Here, I’m going to focus on the first – taking care of yourself. I’m also going to suggest that really truly taking care of yourself and supporting your colleagues and peers in doing this are also ways to begin to impact the therapy work culture as a whole.
What does taking care of yourself as a therapist mean?
First and foremost, it means taking care of yourself in general. But it is also crucial that self-care becomes a key ingredient AT work, throughout the day, each week, and over time. Pacing, breaks, boundaries, eating, getting to the bathroom, laughing, breathing, stretching, moving, connecting with colleagues, and actually taking vacation! It is also vital to have ways to process the work you do and get emotional support. Find inspiration in the posts, Why You Need a Hammock in Your Office, The Importance of Nurturing Ourselves as Therapists, and The Importance of Connection and Collaboration for Therapists.
It may mean you need to make compromises and sacrifices. And this may be very challenging. Can you imagine shortening some of your clinical work to make more time for other tasks? How about allowing yourself to make do with mediocre paperwork? Are you up for being bold enough to be firm about the hours you are and are NOT at work? Is it possible for you to prioritize lunch over phones calls or emails?
Your job as a suitcase.
Think of your job like packing for an international trip and you only get one small suitcase. What is most important to keep, and what can be left behind? All too often therapists try to deal with having “too much to do” by trying to stretch the suitcase or cram stuff in. But then the zippers burst and the thing is too heavy and all the stuff in it gets crushed. See where I’m going?
Re-working the way you work is not easy. And doing it in a culture that emphasizes work-work-work may feel like swimming upstream. But if you start somewhere, you’re on the path to change.
Don’t go it alone. If you join forces with at least one other person in the same predicament, that support can be invaluable. If you can’t find that resource at work, you might connect with another colleague, join a peer supervision group or seek consultation.
A note if you’re in private practice – if you’re like me, you may find that you’ve brought some of your habits and beliefs about the way you’re “supposed to work” along with you. Even amidst the freedom of “working for yourself”, you may discover that you still need to re-work how you work!
Let’s shift from thinking about this to making use of your body’s wisdom to support you.
YOUR BODY KNOWS
Read through the guidelines below and then spend as much or as little time as you’d like exploring the ideas
First, get comfortable. Take some nurturing inhales and relaxing exhales. Stretch, shake out your hands, sigh. Smile or relax your face. Do what works for you.
1. Take a moment to connect to how you’re feeling right now.
Reflect on your responses to this post. Scan your body from head to toe, paying attention to the sensations you notice. Be curious about your emotional state. Notice your thoughts.
2. Ask yourself what the wisest part of your body is right now, in this moment.
It may be something surprising, like your left elbow, or it may feel more obvious, like your heart. Let yourself listen to this part of your body and see what it might have to say to you about prioritizing your own self-care. You may notice words or an image may come to you. You may simply feel a sense of clarity or inspiration. Or, you might find something else altogether.
Give yourself time to really connect to the wisdom you discover about taking care of yourself.
3. Finally, turn your attention to next steps.
Imagine a step that you would like to take to begin to make a change for yourself in re-working the way you work. As you do, notice what happens in your body. See if there is information in your sensory experience or your body feelings or movement that might help you to be clear about how to make this happen for you.
I’d love to hear anything you’d like to share, so if you’d like, please get in touch.
© 2021 Annabelle Coote
This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not to be considered as legal, ethical, clinical, treatment planning, treatment recommendations, or any other business or clinical practice advice related to your work as a therapist.