Blog Post

Beat the Heat: How to Fight Burnout in Your Rehab Therapy Practice

Clinic leaders have the power to prevent systemic burnout from tearing through employee ranks.

Melissa Hughes
5 min read
January 15, 2021
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Burnout has plagued the healthcare industry for years, and it’s only become more prevalent since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Mental Health America conducted a survey of healthcare workers from June–September 2020, it found that 76% of respondents felt “exhaustion and burnout.” Beyond that, 93% of workers reported feeling stress, and 86% reported anxiety. All of that is to say that 2020 was incredibly difficult—and healthcare providers were taxed to their limits as they cared for patients during an unprecedented global crisis.

While the vaccine rollout means we’re finally on our way back to a more normal future, we’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, if the first couple of weeks of the year are any indication, 2021 could prove just as taxing as 2020—which means it’s imperative that clinic leaders address staff burnout before it wreaks havoc on employee productivity and overall quality of life. Because while individual providers can work on their mindfulness and try to reframe their daily duties, there’s only so much they can do. To address this problem at scale, leaders must actively support their staff and implement systemic changes to address an often systemic problem. 

1. Get everyone on board with fighting burnout.

In order to get systemic changes to stick in your clinic, you must garner buy-in from all levels of clinic leadership. Managers, directors, owners, and executives must all be willing to address this problem as a unified front. Think of it like you would any other clinic policy adjustment: everyone must be on the same page so the rules are upheld equally across the organization. 

Struggling to get leadership on board with fighting burnout? Try approaching it from a profitability angle. Addressing burnout is not only the compassionate thing to do for your employees—it also could benefit your bottom line in the long run.

Burnout seriously impacts health and job performance.  

When employees burn out, they can suffer from some serious physical and psychological side effects, including the following (compiled from Mayo Clinic and this study on job burnout):

  • Sadness, anger, or irritability
  • Depressive thoughts
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Vulnerability to illnesses
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Respiratory problems
  • High cholesterol 
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease or disorder

In terms of how this translates to the workplace, these symptoms could increase absenteeism or detachment from work. But beyond that, burned out employees often experience: 

  • Job dissatisfaction,
  • Cynicism or highly critical thoughts about their position or the organization, 
  • Difficulty concentrating, 
  • Disillusionment, and/or
  • A lack of productivity. 

Needless to say, burned out workers are less effective than their more satisfied counterparts, and that can be a major drain on a company’s resources. 

Unhappy employees cost organizations thousands of dollars a year. 

Speaking of draining resources, employee burnout can rack up some pretty big costs. Burnout often leads to absenteeism or “‘presenteeism’ (being physically present at work, but functioning at less than full capacity.” This article even estimates that “productivity losses linked to employees who miss work cost employers…$1,685 per employee, each year.” And don’t forget about the cost of turnover. Burned out employees typically don’t stick around too long, and some sources estimate that the cost of employee turnover is roughly six to nine months of salary. 

In other words, burned out employees are expensive—and while radical organization-wide changes may cost you initially, you’ll save money in the long run by preventing burnout from rearing its ugly head. 

2. Understand the potential causes of burnout. 

Before you can address burnout in your clinic or organization, you must understand what’s causing it. You may feel tempted to point a finger at the pandemic and say, “Well, that’s what’s causing burnout, and I can’t do anything about that!” And while there is a kernel of truth to that statement (you can’t do much about COVID-19 beyond following current infection control protocol), it’s a bit of a cop-out. Burnout existed before COVID-19; the pandemic merely exacerbated it. 

Your best move is to break down the causes of burnout into smaller, more addressable problems. Here are some potential burnout causes (courtesy of the Mayo Clinic and the nonprofit HelpGuide): 

  • Poor workplace culture
  • Lack of social support
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of control
  • Feeling overworked 
  • Feeling unchallenged
  • Unclear job expectations 
  • Lack of recognition

3. Create a positive, supportive work culture.

The most effective way to fight burnout (or even nip it in the bud) is to create and maintain a strong company culture that prioritizes transparency, respect, trust, and positive working relationships. Employees must feel comfortable coming forward with the problems that ail them—whether those are uncomfortable office dynamics, issues with work distribution or load, or even just feelings of stress. If employees feel like their concerns will be brushed off—or even worse, that they’ll face retribution—then they’ll sit on their discomfort, which will only fester into burnout. 

Culture must be exemplified from the top-down. 

Creating a positive company culture is not something that happens overnight—especially if your organization needs to make some big changes. The best way you can turn over a new leaf is to lead by example. For instance, you can:

  • Demonstrate the importance of transparency by explaining major business decisions that affect employees—or by commending employees who take responsibility for their mistakes;
  • Demonstrate respect by acknowledging employees’ expert understanding of their role, seeking their feedback, actively listening to that feedback, and implementing changes where possible; and
  • Demonstrate trust by taking your hands off the wheel, avoiding micromanagement, and always assuming positive intent. 

Positive professional relationships are key. 

A positive company culture naturally fosters healthy, supportive professional relationships. This is critical; humans need social support in their lives, and their professional lives are no exception. I’m not saying that employees need to be best friends with each other—but they should be able to trust each other, offering help, advice, and emotional support when the time is right. 

If your employees do happen to forge friendships, all the better. Professional friendships can motivate people to feel excited to come to work, even when times are tough. 

4. Move away from traditional ideas about the nine-to-five. 

I personally believe it’s near impossible to perfectly segment and compartmentalize our professional and personal lives, in part because we’re just a tap of the smartphone away from one or the other. Despite our best intentions, our personal lives will invade the workplace—and vice versa. And that’s not the only traditional workplace idea that’s a little dated: the age-old nine-to-five is a professional relic that may be causing unhappiness among your employees. 

Offering flexible work schedules makes a world of difference.

Letting your employees step away from a traditional five-day, eight-to-ten-hour schedule can do wonders in the way of combating burnout. For example, if one of your therapists is always stressed about picking up their child from daycare, then switching to an early-morning schedule could remove that stressor from their day-to-day. Or, maybe another therapist would prefer to work Saturdays and take Mondays off—while yet another feels more productive when working a split shift (i.e., working a half day early in the morning and a half day later in the evening). 

Scheduling flexibility can help take an immense burden off the shoulders of many employees—and it comes with an added benefit: if you can find providers who are willing to treat patients at unusual times (e.g., over the weekend or late at night), you may be able to tap into a subset of patients who would not otherwise be able to receive care. 

Alternative compensation models give employees even more flexibility. 

Clinic leaders can also help alleviate burnout by giving employees the option to be paid under alternative compensation models. These models—ranging from hybrid payment plans to revenue sharing programs—offer providers the flexibility and control they need to adjust their workload and hours, meet their personal needs, and potentially reduce their levels of burnout. Plus, due to the structure of these programs, clinics lose less money when providers choose to reduce their hours. Employees simply earn money in relation to the revenue they generate. So, if they choose to work less, they get paid less. Simple as that. 

5. Take care not to overwork your employees. 

One of the biggest causes of burnout is feeling overworked and overwhelmed by professional duties. Unfortunately, you may not notice that an employee is overworked until their performance starts slipping—and at that point, you may have missed the window to intervene proactively. 

For this reason, it’s incredibly important to establish a culture that’s built on mutual respect, trust, and transparency. It’s critical that your employees feel comfortable coming forward when they can’t handle their workload—and before they crumple under the stress. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to workload-related stress.

The name of the game, here, is flexibility. It’s unlikely that multiple employees will seek the same solution for their burnout, so best practice is to work with individuals and craft plans that uniquely help them manage their workload-related stress. Consider offering: 

  • Guilt-free PTO (you’d be surprised how often people feel ashamed for taking time off); 
  • Adjusted or alternative productivity requirements; 
  • Task delegation or redistribution; 
  • Clarification about complicated tasks or current work expectations (lack of clarity takes a big toll on workers); and/or
  • More autonomy or control during their day-to-day. 

Just remember: If you offer some kind of accommodation to an employee and they accept, they’re putting a great deal of trust in you. The employee trusts that you understand their struggle with burnout (something they can’t control) and that you’re willing to work with them so they can maintain employment. If you revoke those accommodations without warning or—even worse—decide to discipline the employee for taking those accommodations, you risk permanently breaking the employee’s trust in you. This will discourage the employee from properly addressing their burnout, and it will likely lead to turnover. So, if a particular accommodation is meant to be temporary, make sure the employee understands that—and commit to regular check-ins with the employee to see how they’re progressing.  

6. Celebrate wins!

Finally, one last way to beat burnout in your organization is simply to celebrate wins. A work environment that is void of recognition for breakthroughs or employee successes drains motivation faster than a hot knife cuts through butter. After all, if an employee feels like their hard work is overlooked or dismissed, they’re left wondering why they should do any more than the bare minimum.

The good news is that celebrating wins is easy! You don’t have to throw together a big to-do or hand out a huge bonus to show appreciation for a staff member’s hard work (though those are perfectly reasonable options!). Sometimes thanking employees personally, shouting them out during a team meeting, or comping a lunch is enough to make them feel appreciated. You could also implement an employee appreciation program, where peers nominate each other for recognition on a monthly basis. 

However you decide to spread the love to your employees, just be sure to share your appreciation on a semi-regular basis. 

Burnout may be prevalent in the healthcare industry, but it’s not inevitable—even in the midst of a pandemic. You can fight and minimize burnout in your clinic by meeting the needs of your employees.

What do you think? How do you minimize burnout in your clinic? Drop a comment below to contribute to the discussion! 


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