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From Exhaustion to Empowerment: A Therapist’s Guide to Supporting Clients Through Burnout

 

Maria, 34, comes into your office and slumps into the couch opposite you. She looks drained, and you notice that her outfit seems a little less put-together than usual. Something is clearly going on. She immediately dives into how “over work” she is, citing a micromanaging boss, unrealistic expectations, and no time off to speak of. A job that only five months ago had her brimming with joy has become a slog.


Is it depression? Not yet. Right now, it’s burnout. If unmanaged, burnout can quickly become clinical depression. Let’s talk about what to do if a client comes into your office showing signs of burnout.

Burnout tends to creep up on everyday folks who are juggling the responsibilities of work, caregiving, and simply being a functioning adult. As therapists, we’re no strangers to the toll that burnout can take on our clients’ mental health, as many of us have experienced compassion fatigue personally.

>>Join the author, Megan Delp, for a webinar – Beyond the Breaking Point: Tactics for Tackling Client Burnout, coming June 20, 2024. Register now!

Let’s acknowledge that burnout is as real as the backlog of notes we are putting off. It’s not just a buzzword; it’s a legitimate phenomenon that can wreak havoc on our clients’ well-being. Whether they’re balancing a demanding job, caring for an aging parent, or wrangling a brood of rambunctious children, burnout doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone, from the CEO to the stay-at-home parent.

So, how can we as therapists support our clients who are teetering on the brink of burnout or are even solidly in the middle of it? We do it by utilizing many of the strategies we all know and love, just tailored slightly:

Validate, validate, validate

It may sound simple, but validation works wonders for clients who are feeling overwhelmed. Let them know that it’s okay to feel exhausted, frustrated, or even downright cranky. People who have unavoidable responsibilities often feel shame if they cannot keep up, so it’s important to acknowledge that they are allowed to have limits, and that they might be approaching, or even surpassing, those limits. Often, they won’t get this compassion at work, as their job continues to push deadlines and priorities, so it can be deeply comforting to reassure them that many of their colleagues probably feel the same way they do.

Normalize the struggle

Burnout can make even the most put-together individuals feel like they’re failing at life. Remind your clients that they’re not alone in this struggle. Share anecdotes, or sprinkle in some research findings to show that burnout is a common experience, not a personal failing. The National Alliance on Mental Illness just released new polling data that showed 52% of US employees have experienced burnout this year, with women, middle managers, and young adults being hit the hardest (NAMI, 2024).

Explore workplace coping strategies

Encourage your clients to get creative with their coping strategies. Whether it’s practicing mindfulness, taking time away from their desk, or scheduling a productivity-free break, help them find what works best for them. These coping strategies may look different if your client works from home. Help them to clearly delineate where and when work begins and ends, including having a practice to truly step away from work at the end of the day. If their mental health struggles are starting to impact daily functioning, it may be time to help them understand what their options are for reasonable accommodations at work, taking a leave of absence or short-term disability, or asking for help from managers, colleagues, partners, and friends.

Set realistic expectations

Ah, expectations—the bane of many a burnt-out individual’s existence. Help your clients set realistic expectations for themselves, even if their higher-ups continue to set unrealistic ones. A great way to coach your client to stand up for realistic expectations is to have them say to their manager, “I need your help prioritizing these projects. I want to make sure we are aligned on what needs to be done first.” Remind them that they’re only human, which means they cannot do it all, and they shouldn’t expect that they can. The to-do list never ends.

We all benefit from having community, so encourage your client to reach out for support from others. An important note on expectations: if your client believes that taking a vacation will heal their burnout, they are unfortunately wrong. We know that burnout will only occur again unless changes are made to how the work is getting done (APA, 2018)!

Understanding when to start looking for a new role

Let’s talk about the dreaded “R” word: resigning. Sometimes, despite their best efforts to set better boundaries, delegate tasks, engage in rest and play, it becomes clear that their current job just may not be sustainable. This might be the time to help them work with a career counselor or career coach who can help them understand what their next steps might be, and what kinds of jobs might be a better fit. If the burnout is from caregiving, this might be the space where we look for external resources to better support the client at home.

Remind clients to look for their successes

In times of burnout and self-doubt, it’s crucial to remind clients to remember their successes. Encourage them to celebrate even the smallest victories, from completing projects to getting out of bed in the morning. People often focus on just the to-do list items that AREN’T getting done, rather than everything that is already finished. Suggest writing every little to-do list item down so they can acknowledge what they’re really accomplishing day-to-day. Help clients identify their strengths and talents, emphasizing their ability to overcome challenges. This is where it’s helpful to put on your “cheerleader” hat.

Foster self-compassion

Last but certainly not least, encourage your clients to show themselves some compassion. Remind them that it’s okay to cut themselves some slack every now and then. After all, we’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

In closing, let’s continue to support our clients with the warmth, empathy, and occasional sprinkle of humor that only therapists can provide. Together, we can help them navigate the murky waters of burnout and emerge stronger, wiser, and much more kind to themselves.

Yours in therapeutic solidarity.

Let’s acknowledge that burnout is as real as the backlog of notes we are putting off. It’s not just a buzzword; it’s a legitimate phenomenon that can wreak havoc on our clients’ well-being.

Megan.Delp

Megan Delp, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional member and Director of Workplace Mental Health with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She is a practicing licensed marriage and family therapist, seeing adult clients who are struggling in their relationships at work and home, and ultimately with themselves. She specializes in helping her clients understand how to create flourishing relationships while taking up the space that is rightfully theirs, empowering her clients to build their self-esteem, set boundaries, feel confident to contribute at home and work, and ultimately become their best selves.

American Psychological Association. (2018, June 27). Vacation time recharges US workers, but positive effects vanish within days, new survey finds [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/06/vacation-recharges-workers

NAMI. (2024). The 2024 NAMI workplace mental health poll. Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/Support-Education/Publications-Reports/Survey-Reports/The-2024-NAMI-Workplace-Mental-Health-Poll/

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