A Burnout Formula

Michelle EllwangerMichelle's JournalLeave a Comment

The top careers notorious for burnout include first responders (think fire fighters, law enforcement and military) and individuals working within health care (think doctors, nurses and mental health professionals). It seems to be a dangerous combination to combine stressful work without proper self-care and time to recharge.

I went back to graduate school for counseling when our youngest child started kindergarten. I felt very confident that I was in the right field. This was largely due to my positive undergraduate experience. While at Virginia Tech, I worked with some of the best researchers and clinicians in the field of Psychology. I loved the concept of helping people get mentally well so that their lives would get better. I didn’t at the time consider the effect working in this field would have on my own life and well being.

Twenty five years have elapsed since undergraduate school and my years working in field seem to be catching up with me. I tell my clients to use a likert scale to assess their stress level. Zero indicates no stress present and ten indicates high stress. I took a minute recently to ask what I would rank 2016 so far. 8-10 range was my answer.  I felt like 70% of my time was going to my work and the remaining 30% was being absorbed by my personal responsibilities.

I started to think about why my stress level was so high. There were personal stressors stemming from being a mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend.  There was the physical stressors from owning a hobby farm.  And there were the professional stressors.  2016 was the most financially successful year ever for my practice.  That seemed good on paper but I was noticing it came at a cost.

I was violating some basic boundaries that could have kept me well.  I was guilty of following a formula sure to create burnout:

1) Overbook 20+ clients into three workdays per week.

2) Start coming in earlier in the morning and staying later at night.

3) Do not take vacations. Feel guilty when you do. Work double time before and after any time off.

4) Continue to accept clients after your caseload is full.

5) Respond to clients during non-business hours.

6) Specialize in trauma work and bring your work home after you leave the office.

7) Ignore self-care, practice poor nutrition and stop making time for exercise.

Who was to blame for where I was in life? Myself.

Nobody was making me do this. I was self-employed and owned my own business. I preached work/life balance and the importance of self-care to all my clients.

What was happening? And more importantly, how was I going to correct the problem I had caused?

I think the solution is going to require me to take some much needed extended time off in 2017.

I’m going to call it a sabbatical. Sabbatical is a Hebrew word that loosely means taking scheduled time off for rest.  The Bible talks about the importance of periodically allowing agricultural fields to lay fallow.  I do this with a section of my vegetable garden every year.  It prevents pests populations from multiplying and cuts down on diseases. As counter intuitive as it might sound, even though time is taken off, productivity will increase as a result of the rest. 

I love what I do and I love my clients.  I think now I need to love myself and recharge.

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