Article contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and Crystal Karges, MS, RD of Eating Disorder Hope
Eating disorder professionals, including therapists and counselors, nutritionists, and physicians, play an incredible role in the recovery process of their patient/client. Working within the eating disorder community can bring unique opportunities that can be rewarding, fulfilling, and challenging to the professional. Because of the nature of the disease, it is common for patients with eating disorders to be burdened with sadness, grief, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and anger. Research has suggested that work with patients who have suffered traumatic experiences is associated with occupational health risks to the professional, such as emotional burnout, physical fatigue, stress-related problems, compromised immunity, depression, and suicidal ideation. According to researcher Charles Figley, “…there is a cost to caring…the most effective therapists are most vulnerable to this contagion effect…those who have enormous capacity for feeling and expressing empathy tend to be more at risk of compassion stress” .
Eating disorder professionals are at significant risk for burnout, especially given the nature of their practice and degree of involvement with their patients and clients. In his book On Being a Therapist, Dr. Jeffrey Kottler describes burnout as “the single most common personal consequence of practicing therapy” . Being able to recognize symptoms of burnout can be helpful with implementing early interventions. Here are some of the common indicators that a health professional may be experiencing burnout:
- Skipping or missing sessions
- Frequent absences from work
- Increased engagement in detrimental habits to alleviate stress, such as drinking, drug use, or binge eating
- Avoiding clients/patients
- Feeling resentful or judgmental towards clients/patients
- Overstepping boundaries or acting unethically towards clients/patients
- Unable to enjoy leisure time outside of work
- Unable to cope with patients’ stories from counseling sessions
- Feeling as though you want to “give up” on a client/patient
Preventing, recognizing and treating burnout are all critical to the continued work of eating disorder health professionals. While burnout is a common experience of working with this patient population, it can drastically hinder a professional’s ability to effectively counsel and/or treat the individuals whom they are striving to help. Health professionals who may be struggling and attempting to continue in their field of work can not only jeopardize their own health but can be potentially damaging to the clients/patients they are interacting with as well.
Burnout can typically stem from insufficient self-care. Working in a field that requires deep emotional investment in assisting others necessitates equivalent dedication to one’s own health and wellness. From the book, Learning the Art of Helping: Building Blocks and Techniques, author Mark Young notes, “It is easy to become emotionally ‘bankrupt’ and ‘burned out’ if one does not develop techniques for stress management, time management, relaxation, leisure, and personal renewal” . All health professionals dedicated their lives to the healing of others can benefit from the following suggestions for preventing burnout:
- Understand your limitations and boundaries: This may involve learning to say no to certain work activities, case loads, or new responsibilities that may make you feel overwhelmed. Learn what you can reasonably handle without compromising your health and wellness.
- Make and enforce time for yourself: Identify activities that help you cope with stress healthily and make regular time to focus on leisure. Find ways to alleviate stress and relax each day.
- Stay connected: Enlisting the support of a mentor can be helpful with accountability. Stay engaged with respected colleagues and supervisors who can lend support, direction, and guidance. Reach out for your own professional help if you are finding it difficult to manage emotions that may be arising.
Eating disorder professionals are invaluable to the recovery and healing of countless individuals seeking to overcome their illness. In order for this community to be served most effectively, professionals in this field must make self-care and wellness their priority. Learning how to prevent and recognize burnout can be one of the most important ways to ensure that the vital work being done is continued.
References:: Figley, C.R. (1995) Compassion Fatigue- Coping with Secondary Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatised. Brunner/Mazel, Bristol. : Kottler, J.A. (2003). On being a therapist (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. : Young, M.E. (2009). Learning the art of helping. Building blocks and techniques (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on
February 4, 2014
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com, Eating Disorder Information