Battling Burnout: A Recreation Therapist’s Guide

There’s no doubt most Recreation Therapists love their work. Getting the chance to use something as powerful as recreation to help others is a great way to make a living. Anyone working in the field long enough, however, knows burnout is a serious issue. Budget cuts, high staff turnover, ineffective management, poor work/life balance, and the stress of caring for individuals with serious physical and/or mental health issues may turn your dream career into exhausting nightmare.

Burnout occurs in any work setting. It’s more common in caring professions such as nursing, medicine, teaching, counseling, and social service due to the emotional stress and pressure of caring for others. Depending on the setting, it’s estimated as many as 70% of healthcare workers experience some symptoms of burnout.

What is Burnout?

Unlike compassion fatigue, burnout is a gradual process brought on by the constant stress and pressure of difficult work environments. If it is not addressed early, it could lead to several serious physical and mental health issues. In addition, the clients being served often receive substandard care and a lack of empathy.  

According to an article in Patient.info, there are three main components of burnout.

Physical and Emotional Exhaustion

Burnout takes a toll on a health professional’s physical and emotional well-being. This exhaustion leads to less productivity, a flattened affect, and a diminished response to the demands of the job.

Depersonalization

This refers to detaching emotions and empathy from the clients caregivers work with everyday. The job becomes a routine where clients are seen as objects or tasks instead of individuals.

Lack of Personal Accomplishment

Those with burnout feel like they are no longer productive on the job. They feel their work is not important or meaningful. Coupled with exhaustion, they may coast through their shifts doing little to improve their situations.

portrait of burnoutTypical Symptoms of Burnout:

  • Poor Concentration
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Lack of Empathy
  • Feeling Isolated
  • Short Temper
  • Resentment
  • Resistance to Change
  • Apathy
  • Poor Memory
  • Avoidance
  • Headaches
  • Withdrawn Behavior
  • Poor Impulse Control
  • Substance Abuse
  • Emotional Eating
  • Absenteeism

Unless you work in a well-managed, supportive environment with well-behaved, appreciative clients, chances are you may, at some point, experience some signs of burnout. The best way to battle burnout is early detection and preventative self-care.

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Ways to Battle Burnout

As passionate Recreation Therapists and Activity Professionals, we want to ensure we are operating at our best level to ensure excellent care for our clients. Quality caregiving starts with routine self-care. Here are some strategies for preventing burnout and making sure you are the best Recreation Therapist you could be:

Practice what you Preach

As Recreation Therapists, our main goal is teaching participants the value of a positive leisure lifestyle. Take a look how you spend your free time. Are you engaging in leisure activities that refresh and replenish your energy levels? Assess how you spend your free time and manage your work/life balance. Find new activities or revisit ones you enjoyed in the past.

Stay Well

As we all know, a healthy diet, exercise, and sufficient sleep is necessary to feel good, have energy, and develop emotional resilience. Go for a brisk walk or try a simple morning or evening exercise routine. Choose healthy foods instead of reaching for sweets and other junk food. Sure, a treat now and then is great, but keep your body fueled with nourishing snacks that will keep your energy level up.

Don’t Take Things Personally

We all deal with that certain client who knows the exact way to get under our skin. Some coworkers are more willing to spread misery than be part of a team. Even when comments or actions seem like personal attacks, do your best not to take it personally. Of course, this isn’t easy. Try seeing things from their perspective. What else is going on in your client’s or coworker’s life? Even when they are trying to irritate you, is it really you they’re attacking or a displaced struggle in their own life?

Take Breaks

When stress levels are high, go ahead and take a few minutes to yourself. Don’t reach for a cigarette or gossip with a coworker. Use short breaks to gather your wits and reflect on the moment. Take a couple minutes to meditate or quickly journal your frustrations while brainstorming possible solutions. It won’t solve all your problems, but it may shift your perspectives enough to make the stress manageable.

Be Grateful

By adopting a mindset of gratitude instead of feeding into negativity, you will find more joy in your day. When struggling with burnout, this could be a difficult task. Start small. At the end of your shift, write a few good things that happened to you. Focus on the positive interactions and people you helped during your groups and activities.

Have a Support Network Outside of Work

This doesn’t necessarily mean going home to your spouse to rant for hours about your awful day. Find an activity or volunteer opportunity that is completely different from what you usually do. Meet up with people outside the healthcare field and focus on anything but caregiving. For example, some Saturday mornings I volunteer at a local forest preserve clearing out invasive brush and trees. It’s a great cathartic, physical activity to clear my mind. It is also a chance to interact with people having different interests and passions.

post it noteKeep Things Fresh

Find ways to break work routines. There are so many great resources for Recreation Therapists to find new ideas and activities to engage with their clients. Try a different outing or game. Incorporate one of your passions into the activity programming. If possible, change your schedule. By breaking out of work habits, the job becomes fresh and exciting again.

Get Help

If you are overwhelmed and burnout is affecting your work and personal life, seek help. As mentioned earlier, burnout is common among healthcare professionals, so don’t be reluctant or embarrassed to seek help. The effects of burnout could cause serious consequences to your physical and mental health. Get counseling or talk with someone removed from your work environment that could remain objective and supportive.

If It’s Time to Move on, Do It.

Even if you have the best intentions, sometimes the work environment is so toxic and stressful that it is best to leave. Even if you have to find a temporary job unrelated to Recreation Therapy, take that time to reflect and reevaluate what you really need to be great in your field.

Three Quick Ways to Begin Battling Burnout

Do you have fifteen minutes to spare? These three simple activities are small steps to help you shift your mindset and battle burnout.

Make a Pros and Cons List

Take five or ten minutes and brainstorm the pros and cons of your current job. Let your writing flow and write whatever comes to mind. I did this activity last night and was pleasantly surprised with some of the things I discovered. You may realize there are more positives than you typically think about on a daily basis.

Do a Quick Meditation

In a previous article, I talked about the benefits of mediation for recreation therapists and other healthcare professionals. One particular meditation–known as Metta or Lovingkindness–has scientifically proven benefits. This type of meditation builds compassion and helps you view difficult people in a new light. I found a simple 6-minute Metta Meditation version on YouTube. Give it a try, it’s only six minutes.

a lot of blueberriesFind a Go-To Healthy Snack

Next time you get cravings for your favorite sweets or junk foods, have a healthier option available. Initially, you may not get the same pleasure from this snack, but, eventually, you will start craving this snack when you get that afternoon hunger. Here are some suggestions:

  • Fresh Fruit
  • Almonds or Pistachios
  • Stick of String Cheese
  • Whole Wheat Breakfast Cereal with Dried Fruit
  • Yogurt Raisins
  • Protein Bar
  • Smoothy
  • Popcorn–less butter, add your favorite spices
  • Greek Yogurt with Granola and Berries

These are just a few options. Find something satisfying and that suits your taste. Make it readily available, especially during your favorite snacking times.

 


Battling burnout is crucial to Recreation Therapists and other caring professionals. Don’t wait until you are fed up with your job to start making changes. Small steps everyday will help prevent burnout and make you more aware of how your workplace affects you.

 

Tell the Real Recreation Therapist Community

What self-care strategies do you use to prevent burnout?

What advice do you have for those dealing with burnout?

What is a healthy go-to snack you love?

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