No matter how exciting it is to be a physical therapist, we all have moments where we’d rather be doing something else besides treating patients. That’s normal.
But there’s an insidious, creeping condition that is affecting more and more physical therapists every day, and it’s called burnout. I wrote about the physical therapy burnout crisis recently, and I was astounded by the response I received. There are tons physical therapists who are feeling frustrated, drained, and powerless—and it’s vital that we address this problem head-on.
While a day or two of feeling off—or dreaming of vacations—is nothing to be concerned about, there are plenty of signs that you’re dealing with something worse than a case of the Mondays.
Here are nine signs that you’ve hit the point of being a burned-out PT:
- You truly dread going to work most days.
- You find yourself rolling your eyes internally (or externally) when patients complain to you.
- You mentally check out at meetings, or you spread negativity in the workplace.
- You’ve lost interest in journal clubs, research, and con-ed.
- You dream of retirement simply because you don’t want to work.
- You can’t imagine working as a PT for 5-10 more years, much less 35.
- When people ask you if you like your job, you have a visceral negative response.
- You let your APTA membership lapse long ago.
- You complain enough to family and friends that they’re begging you to switch jobs or careers.
Are you a burned-out PT? If so, there’s still hope.
Here are a few things you can do to help remedy the situation:
Change settings or employers.
This is the obvious choice. (If you’ve already changed settings several times but still feel frustrated and burned out, skip to the next section.)
If you’ve only worked in a single type of setting, or you’ve only worked for a single employer—or type of employer—then you’re doing yourself a disservice by not exploring other avenues of work.
Like pediatrics but can’t stand the outpatient grind? Check out school-based PT jobs. Can’t stand school systems? Give geriatrics a shot. Skilled nursing facility (SNF) rehab therapists might want to check out outpatient ortho—and vice versa. The beauty of PT is that you can always check out new settings, patient populations, and employers.
Another thing to consider is that you might not vibe with your employer or company culture. If they’re all about the bottom line, that can certainly make you feel overworked and underappreciated. Don’t rule out adult day care jobs or jobs at non-profit facilities. Many PTs find that their burnout improves significantly when they switch to a new organization with a different company culture.
That said, again, changing settings or employers won’t solve things if you simply aren’t happy treating patients. And that brings me to my next suggestion.
Explore non-clinical PT routes.
I’m very passionate about physical therapists having ample opportunities to leverage our educations in non-clinical ways.
It’s not yet considered the norm to do so—far from it—and there’s a bit of a stigma attached to leaving patient care to pursue non-clinical roles. But, I hope the future sees more opportunities for PTs to do so without judgment. There are actually quite a few ways for PTs to use their degrees outside of patient care; it just takes a bit of persistence and creativity to get there.
Here are a few of the many ways you can leverage your degree outside of the treatment room:
- Utilization review
- Medical device training or sales
- Healthcare copywriting or content writing
- Medical writing (may require additional training)
- Rehab intake management
Some of these roles do offer some flexibility, so if you’re not ready to leave patient care altogether, you can consider keeping a toe dipped in the pool.
I recently started a site called The Non-Clinical PT in order to provide a platform for burned-out PTs to explore creative ways to leverage their degrees, so be sure to stop by for more details!
Take a continuing education class.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—I know. When you’re feeling burned out, the last thing you want to think about is more PT education, especially if your employer requires you to use your hard-earned PTO to sit through con-ed courses. But taking a con-ed class can get you excited about your job again, mostly because you’ll feel empowered to make more of a difference in your patients’ lives.
One of the most frustrating things about being burned out is feeling like you’re spinning your wheels and nothing is changing. So, it’s important that you pick a course that’ll “unstick your door,” so to speak. There are many different approaches to selecting con-ed courses. If you feel like you’re constantly struggling with insurance companies, for example, you may want to take a course on billing and/or compliance. If you feel like you’ve got a caseload of folks who aren’t improving, on the other hand, look for a class that covers diagnoses you commonly encounter.
You don’t have to travel far to take a course, either—even if you feel like you live in the middle of nowhere and everything is a hike. There are plenty of online options that can both inspire and educate you.
Take a regular course.
Sometimes, you just need to step away from your job. It’s okay if PT isn’t your life. In fact, unless you’re a total workaholic type, PT should not be all-consuming. Take a class because it interests you. That comedy improvisation class you keep hearing about? Sign up. Pottery or glass-blowing? Do it. It will give you something to look forward to, and you’ll feel like you’re growing as a person. Plus, you’ll meet new people who aren’t patients, which is always refreshing!
If you’d rather take an online course because of family or work commitments, there are lots of really cool sites out there. For example, you can learn web design or computer programming at Udemy or Lynda. You can also take free—or very inexpensive—online courses through major universities.
When you get home from work, you might want to just plop on the couch and browse Facebook or Instagram. Resist the temptation! If your life starts to feel like it’s all about work and keeping track of everyone else’s lives, you’ll likely wind up frustrated and burned out.
Take a vacation.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to take a proper vacation. I’m not talking about a few days to visit your family and squabble over politics during Thanksgiving, but a real trip where you can’t get sucked into doing laundry, reorganizing a closet, or checking email.
When you skip vacations, it impacts your mental state and your overall health. It impacts how you treat your family members, and it certainly affects how you feel about going to work day after day.
I had a CI who made a point of taking one day off per month—no matter what—in addition to an actual vacation. While the standard two weeks of PTO might not make this possible for you, you can always ask about unpaid time off or even consider a job where you get ample PTO.
Go out with your co-workers.
When you’re burned out, it’s natural to skip all the happy hours and lunch breaks with your co-workers. But therapists are the best co-workers ever, so spend some time with them and take advantage of the fact that you work with genuinely good people.
Get to know them outside of work, and show them that you give a hoot about their well-being. Not only will you enjoy going to work more each day because you’ll feel like you’re hanging out with your friends, but also, when it’s time to request vacation coverage, you’ll be more likely to have someone gladly step up to the plate for you.
Consider per diem, travel, or registry work.
I have come to the realization that I simply get bored easily. After working full-time in several jobs, I finally switched to per diem—and it was such a refreshing change for me. It enabled me to launch a website and focus on honing my copywriting skills.
If you enjoy variety in your day-to-day life—in everything from co-workers and managers to patients, diagnoses, and settings—then you must consider working in either travel or registry PT. Travel PT means you’ll move around the country to various facilities, while registry PT allows you to move around to different organizations in your local area.
Also, with registry PT, you might be in a different facility each day or week, whereas travel PT usually means you’re in the same place for a few months at a time. If you have family obligations or don’t want to move every few months, but you crave variety, definitely look into registry PT. You’ll usually get paid a higher wage, and you’ll never get bored!
Don’t let it get the best of you.
Whatever you decide to do, don’t be too tough on yourself for getting burned out. Burnout is a real problem in physical therapy. Increasing patient loads, documentation requirements, pressure to meet productivity minimums, and focus on patient satisfaction—coupled with decreasing reimbursements—make it easy to understand why PTs are feeling burned out. Throw in the burden of crippling student loan debt, and you might start to wonder why burnout isn’t even more prevalent than it already is.
The important thing is that you do something about it. Whether you take a course, change settings, pursue a non-clinical job, or opt to step away for a much-needed vacation, take action to prevent burnout from getting the best of you. You’ll be a better person—and a better therapist—if you address the issue.
Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a site designed to help physical therapy professionals leverage their degrees in creative ways. She is also the co-founder of NewGradPhysicalTherapy.com, and she works full-time as a senior copywriter at a marketing agency in San Diego, California. Originally from Tyler, Texas, she attended the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad, before graduating with her DPT from the University of St. Augustine (San Diego) in 2010. She has worked in outpatient ortho, inpatient rehab, acute care, and home health physical therapy.