Early Career Psychology: Balance vs. Burnout

By Christina Spragg, Ph.D.
August 1, 2017 - Last updated: July 31, 2017

psychologist burnout vs balanceAchieving balance is a trendy topic. I contemplated using a photo of smooth stones balancing gingerly atop each other because that seems to have become the universal symbol for balance. Instead, I decided “person not yet falling into the water” seemed a more accurate visual representation of what the quest for maintaining balance actually feels like.

As psychologists, we understand the negative effects that chronic stress has on our bodies and mental health.  I suspect that we have found ourselves, many times, urging our clients to develop self-care strategies that will help them maintain more balanced lives. We know balance is good for us. There is a felt sense of satisfaction and ease when the proportion of our expended effort is similar to the amount of rest and nourishment we enjoy.

As early career psychologists we are still in the initial stages of our careers. Undoubtedly, we are well rested and buzzing with the enthusiasm that comes from finally being able to pursue the career for which we’ve worked hard. Right?

Well, not necessarily. In fact, in my dissertation research, I used a true experimental design to study the impact of mindfulness practice on mental health service providers-in-training. One surprising finding was that all 16 of the participants (from control and experimental groups) initially met criteria for burnout.

Let that sink in a bit.

All 16 of the providers-in-training were experiencing burnout. They had not even graduated yet and were already depleted. Burnout has been described psychologically as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who do people work of some kind.” I can’t say I was surprised, more like, validated. After all, there was a reason I chose to study the topic.

It’s clear that burnout is not something that only develops after spending decades doing “people work.” Burnout is believed to start during graduate training when stressful course loads are coupled with practicum assignments. We work with distressed patients under evaluative circumstances while maintaining a vested interest in “getting it right.”

The frantic pace of graduate school seems to serve as the catalyst for a continued demanding schedule, which can later result in the perpetual cycle of an imbalanced professional life. I wonder if many of us shared the fantasy “when I graduate (and no longer have to study for tests, live on student loans, work in settings that are grueling) I’m going to finally start taking care of myself?” I wonder how many of us can honestly say that we’ve made good on that promise?

Perhaps we could all benefit from reflecting on our degree of work/life balance upon completion of our training and strategizing about ways to build self-care into our lives in tangible ways. I say tangible because, let’s face it, we all have an idea about what balance looks like, but are we living in ways that allow us to actually sense a state of balance or harmony within our minds and bodies?

Regular check-ins regarding our work/life balance and modifications of those strategies must become one of our professional responsibilities if we are to enjoy a fulfilling career while doing our best work. Balance is a subjective experience and there is a different degree of permeability between work/life boundaries that feels right to each person. Some aren’t burdened by responding to emails after work, but for some, it may be hard to get out of “clinical mode” until they’ve fully transitioned from work into home.

Some need to practice yoga every morning while others feel refreshed after a weekend Netflix binge. Maybe you’d like to take a moment to reflect on your work/life balance now, and commit to prioritizing one or two specific acts of self-care this week? To further increase the chances that you’ll actually make time for self-care, perhaps you’d like to set a reminder on your phone or calendar?

References available from author

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Christina Spragg, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist serving adults and adolescents in Sacramento, Calif. She is on the board of directors of the Sacramento Valley Psychological Association and is chair of the association’s committee for early career psychologists. Her email address is: drcspragg@gmail.com.

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