Burnout is mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion from work. You can experience burnout anywhere, but in healthcare, burnout is particularly prevalent, affecting half of physicians and a third of other medical professionals, including physical therapists.
I can attest. Just two months into my first job as a Physical Therapist, I felt burnt out. Day after day I was stressed, cynical, and frustrated with my employer. I nearly quit physical therapy then and there.
As dismal as it sounds, my experience is all too common among new PTs. But burnout is not inevitable, and there are three ways you can avoid it – and even turn physical therapy into a rewarding career.
3 Ways to Avoid Physical Therapist Burnout
1. Set Your Boundaries
Fresh out of the gate, you might be glad to work in any outpatient clinic. But not all clinics run the same, and if you don’t set some boundaries for yourself and your work-life, you may run the risk of a quick burnout.
For example, some clinics expect just 40 patient visits a week, while others demand 80 – literally double the number of patients.
Granted, I think it’s great to maximize productivity and economize schedules. But with productivity as the focus, a clinic can very quickly cross the line, doubling up appointments and permitting unethical (and illegal) scheduling practices.
That doesn’t mean we therapists should be inflexible towards our colleagues and refuse to take on extra work from time to time. I’m happy to reschedule my lunch break or stay later when a co-worker needs help.
The difference is in the scheduling practice. If your clinic regularly assigns an unrealistic visit goal – one that double- or even triple- books patients – you’ll be on the fast track to physical therapist burnout.
How do you avoid this? You don’t necessarily need to change jobs. Try communicating first. Set boundaries for yourself by meeting with your supervisor to review the job description and clarify productivity expectations.
Don’t wait to establish boundaries until you’re fed up with your schedule or, worse, unable to give patients your best. Set expectations for your workload before it affects your work performance.
2. Stay Curious
Maybe your schedule is fine but the work has become dull. If that’s the case, one way to combat burnout is to pursue professional education that’s challenging and stimulating.
Lucky for us PTs, we’re encouraged – required even – to continue education throughout our career. That’s because it’s easy to stay in a rut of “same old practices,” a rut that keeps you from learning new treatments and growing in your career as a physical therapist.
In my situation, when I approached burnout I knew I had to stay curious. I’d always been interested in outpatient orthopedics, but I also wanted to learn how to treat athletes. So I took a continuing education course on managing treatments for fitness athletes. Not only did this course enrich my understanding of the field, it helped me integrate the latest research in my treatments and thereby improve my practice.
Whether it’s pediatrics, neurology, or sports rehab, I’ve found there’s always something new to discover. Across all topics, I pursue continuing education through MedBridge, an online platform with a wide range of CEU courses based on cutting-edge research.
You can use an online resource like I do or attend an in-person session. Some CEUs are courses while others are earned through workshops and webinars. Regardless of the format, so long as it’s challenging and interesting to you, continuing education will help you avoid burnout.
3. Automate the Mundane
It’s good to change things up in continuing education to avoid an intellectual rut. But when it comes to daily notes, starting afresh every day is a sure way to experience burnout.
Physical therapy documentation is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a PT. It’s mundane, time-consuming, and burdensome on physical therapists who aren’t writers in the first place. All told, documentation is a major contributor to physical therapist burnout.
But we don’t help ourselves by manually typing the same phrases over and over whenever we write notes. This effortful repetition wastes time and brain space that your patient – and your sanity! – deserve.
Instead of staring down a blank slate each time I need to write a note, I rely on templates and some prewritten phrases. There’s no sense relying on creative juices I might not have at the end of a long day in the clinic.
I’m not saying you should copy and paste an entire note; therapy documentation should absolutely be unique to the patient. However, much of the documentation is routine, whether it’s a progress note, daily note, or evaluation. Let automation take care of the routine bits so that you can focus on the specifics.
Autocomplete Treatments with Documentation Templates
What does that look like in practice? Well, check your computer or tablet for a feature called “hotkeys,” or something similar. With hotkeys, you can program the computer to automatically replace a string of text with a longer line of prefilled text – like an advanced autocorrect. All you need to do is write out each phrase one time, plug it into your device with an assigned shortcut, and boom! That phrase is automated.
The key here is to write really good, really thorough notes – once. Then save those well-written snippets for future reference.
That’s what I did. Once I had written a great note, I saved it, eventually compiling whole pages of documentation phrases and templates.
Once I started using these templates to help speed up my note writing, my documentation time became more accurate and efficient. Not only did I avoid missing certain descriptors in each phrase, I also shaved 30 to 60 seconds off my treatment-by-treatment documentation time.
These “cheat sheets” save me 60 minutes a day on note-writing and unburden the weight of home health documentation on the weekends. I now spend more time fully present with my patients and less time fussing over words.
By removing the monotony and simplifying the process, documentation has become far less stressful, and I less susceptible to burnout.
Take Steps to Avoid Physical Therapist Burnout
As physical therapists, each of us faces unique challenges that can lead to burnout. But if you resonate with any of the frustrations I experienced, take the steps outlined above to avoid burning out and quitting PT.
From my experience, it is possible to enjoy your schedule, challenge yourself, and breeze through daily tedium. You don’t have to sacrifice your mental or physical health to make an impact as a PT.