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Three Methods to Prevent Burnout in Physical Therapy

Burnout is terrible, don’t let it happen to you!
By Lily Beltran | July 26, 2018
Three Methods to Prevent Burnout in Physical Therapy

The field of physical therapy is filled with amazing people. Physical therapists are devoted people with a calling to help others in need. It would be easy to imagine that these clinicians would have fulfilling and passionate lives. Unfortunately, sometimes passion and purpose are hard to find. Studies indicate a burnout rate of up to 85% in a field where helping others is of top priority.

Burnout and being overstressed seem to be the mantra of the current working age. A recent study showed that burnout is actually nothing less than depression at work. Another study listed these as the consequences of burnout:

“These outcomes include burnout, turnover, sickness, absence, and work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Job stress has been linked to medical and psychiatric conditions, including depression and cardiac disease. In health care workers, job stress has been linked to reduced quality of patient care.”

For the sake of our patients and our own well being, we need to direct the field back into a direction that allows us to do what we love: helping others. We’ve identified three methods on how to enjoy your job and life again...

First Method: Adopting an Optimistic Explanatory Style

Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, suggests that if you’re feeling burnt-out, there is a high chance the way you explain bad situations to yourself is highly pessimistic.

What does a pessimistic explanatory style look like? Bad situations are explained in three separate entities:

  1. Long-lasting
  2. Universal
  3. Your fault

For example, you meet a patient who is furious that their treatment is taking too long and not working. You may think to yourself:

“This patient will be with me forever.”

“All my other patients must feel the same.”

“This must mean I’m a bad physical therapist.”

This type of mindset strongly correlates to burnout. In order to combat workplace depression, we must actively strive to approach our life and work with an optimistic style. An optimistic explanatory style tells us that bad situations are:

  1. Transitory
  2. Specific
  3. External

When using an optimistic style, the scenario above would play out much differently:

“This patient has always been tough, and it’s not my job to make everyone happy always; luckily he won’t be with me much longer.”

“Thankfully, the majority of my patients are quite happy with my care and we enjoy our sessions.”

“He must be in a really challenging spot in his life.”

Be kind to yourself and treat yourself with care. While pessimism has a time and a place, you must strive to be optimistic in explaining bad situations. What did your explanatory style look like during your last negative experience at work? If it was pessimistic, how could you flip the situation and explain it optimistically?

Bad situations are not long lasting, specific to a particular situation, and not your fault.


Second Method: Give Yourself the Gift of Purpose

You may think that one of the reasons for your workplace apathy is that you are working too much. The Terman Study actually showed that some of the happiest and most fulfilled people work incredibly long hours, but these people are highly engaged in purposeful activities that have meaning.

“There is a terrible misunderstanding about stress. Chronic physiological disturbance is not at all the same thing as hard work, social challenges or demanding careers. The Longevity Project discovered that those who worked the hardest lived the longest...especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”

Having a purpose that serves the greater good of humanity or your organization is a clear way to combat burnt out. You’re not a cog in the wheel, with quotas on patients to increase revenue. You’re a vital and important piece of your patients’ lives.

Mr. Seligman also recommends using your signature strengths on a daily basis within your career. Signature strengths are unique characteristics that are essential to who you are as a person. Not sure what your signature strengths are? Check out this quiz! (requires registration, then select “Questionnaires” from the pull-down menu.) Alternatively, click here to rank yourself on the printable signature strength rating scale. Take your top three strengths and reflect on how you can utilize them at work.

If you scored high in optimism and have a patient who would score high in pessimism, how could you use your optimism to positively influence their outcome? What situations at work would best call upon your signature strengths? How would you go about implementing them?

Utilizing your signature strengths, in conjunction with adding more purpose to your career, is critical to keep from burning out in PT.


Third Method: Celebrate Your Strengths with Your Friends and Peers

Isolation is a strong characteristic of depression, and unsurprisingly, isolating yourself when you’re dealing with burnout can be very harmful.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leader in Positive Psychology, states, "Almost every person feels happier when they're with other people… It's paradoxical because many of us think we can hardly wait to get home and be alone with nothing to do, but that's a worst-case scenario. If you're alone with nothing to do, the quality of your experience really plummets." Seligman adds that the happiest and least depressed people have “ ...strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them."

The best way you can combat burnout is to make time in your week to spend time with friends, peers, and loved ones. Think about how many times in the past week you spent time with friends, peers, and family and set a goal to increase that number.

Websites like Reddit and SomaSimple have thriving online communities of physical therapists that can offer encouragement and support. Reach out to APTA and find the closest community gathering. Facebook and Linkedin have thriving groups with active discussions. Even if access is limited, you can still reach out and connect with people who care.

Fight your urge to isolate yourself and increase your amount of time with people who care about you.


We’ve all heard the announcement on the plane to put your oxygen mask on before you help others and this mantra rings true: to help others you must help yourself first.

By turning into an optimist, finding meaning, using your signature strengths, and reaching out to peers, you can beat burnout and have a vital career with passion and purpose.