Burnout in allied health

While the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, allied health clinicians are continuing to suffer burnout. The good news is there are ways to combat it – and Better Rehab is leading the way

Burnout, also called ‘job burnout’, is a type of debilitating work-related stress. And it can happen to anyone working in any industry who experiences extreme and prolonged pressures from heavy workloads and stressful situations.  

Healthcare workers, including allied health professionals, have long been at risk of burnout, but rates soared during COVID-19, as many experienced unprecedented high patient loads, the stress of risk of infection, for themselves and their loved ones, and other stressors, which took a toll on their health and wellbeing. Staffing shortages also added to burnout rates; a 2022 survey of healthcare professionals found that 83 per cent experienced burnout, felt mentally exhausted or were emotionally drained due to staff shortages during the pandemic. 

And now, in post-COVID times, studies have found burnout rates remain higher than pre-COVID, as many workers feel exhausted and stressed from continued heavy workloads and the toll the pandemic took on their health and wellbeing – a phenomenon that’s been coined ‘COVID hangover’

In Australia, a 2022 survey of 768 NDIS workers, including allied health professionals and disability support workers, found high levels of burnout with almost 50% feeling ‘burned out’ at least half the time due to high workloads.  

What is burnout? 

As a psychological syndrome, burnout is characterised by a sense of overwhelming exhaustion and detachment. Individuals start to feel their tasks and goals are beyond reach, and not worth pursuing.  

Burnout is particularly concerning for people who work in people-oriented industries such as the allied health profession.

The main causes of burnout 

Prolonged heavy work loads and exposure to stressful situations are the two main causes of burnout, however there are other workplace factors that can lead to burnout including: 

  • Inadequate workplace support and communication 
  • Heavy paperwork/administrative load 
  • Poor work life balance – lack of flexibility and a culture that demands overtime and discourages taking breaks 
  • Lack of role clarity 
  • Poor management that fosters/ignore bad behaviours such as undermining and bullying 
  • Emotional intensity including moral decision making, particularly without adequate support 

Is feeling stressed the same as burnout? 

Experiencing some stress at work doesn’t lead to burnout. Stress is a part of life, which in small doses can improve our mental wellbeing by making us more alert and charging up our energy levels. And while the demands of any job can make us feel tired, frustrated and yearning for the weekend, it isn’t burnout. 

As burnout researcher Professor Jarrod Haar says, “Being exhausted at the end of the workday or the work week is called ‘work’. But if you’re tired before you start, that’s called emotional exhaustion,” which is a main symptom of burnout. 

The signs and symptoms of burnout: what does burnout feel like? 

The main symptoms of burnout are overwhelming physical and emotional exhaustion, often accompanied by feelings of cynicism, a lack of accomplishment, detachment and negativity. More concerningly studies have found that burnout affects healthcare workers’ health and wellbeing and can reduce the quality of patient and participant care, including safety. 

While everyone’s experience of burnout is different, the most common signs and symptoms, include: 

  • Lacking energy: Feeling tired before you get to work and slow to get started 
  • Feeling stressed more often 
  • Impaired attention, memory, and executive function, such as poor concentration 
  • Lacking confidence and experiencing a lack of personal accomplishment 
  • Being more cynical and overly critical 
  • Taking extra sick days and regularly arriving late to work 
  • Feeling irritable and impatient with others 
  • Feeling down, sad and/or angry more often 
  • Being less productive and missing deadlines 
  • Experiencing low job satisfaction 
  • Using food, alcohol, medications to feel better or cope 
  • Poor sleep habits  
  • Physical symptoms including headaches, stomach aches 

If left untreated, burnout can lead to insomnia, fatigue, alcohol or substance misuse, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and other illnesses.  

So, what can we do to reduce healthcare burnout?  

It’s widely believed that making changes to the workplace, ‘from the top down’, is key to reducing burnout. In fact, there’s even a 2019 Harvard Business Review article titled ‘Burnout is about your workplace not your people’! 

The Australian Government’s National Mental Health Commission also supports ‘whole of organisation’ tactic to help reduce burnout and fatigue and recommends changes to work allocation, work flow, rosters, decision-making processes and support. 

While the pandemic increased the incidence of burnout, it put this widespread syndrome in the spotlight, which helped reduce the stigmas surrounding burnout and motivated some organisations to introduce initiatives – or interventions – to combat it.  

5 workplace interventions that reduce burnout 

Reducing burnout is all about keeping workers happy, healthy, and resilient, so when they’re faced with temporary spikes in workloads and stresses, they are better equipped to adapt, act (by seeking support and making changes), and cope. Some call this ‘sustainability at work’. 

For example, an Australian government survey on healthcare workers in the NDIS space found that burnout rates were lowered when they had healthy work practices and felt their work was valuable to the community and personally fulfilling. 

Five workplace changes that can reduce burnout include:

  1. Better management of workloads and working hours 
  2. Reduced administrative burden 
  3. Improved workplace health and safety practices 
  4. Providing a supportive and positive workplace environment, with good communication channels 
  5. Flexibility for achieving a better work-life balance 

For allied health organisations that continue to maintain unhealthy work practices and cultures, they not only put their workers at risk of burnout, but risk poor staff retention, reduced quality of service, and damage to their reputation.  

What steps can clinicians take to prevent burnout? 

Many of Better Rehab’s clinicians chose to work as an allied health clinician to help people live a better quality of life and the majority of healthcare professionals surveyed in 2022 said their job brings meaning to their life. 

So, if you’re a healthcare professional – or considering becoming one – you’ll be glad to hear there are actions you can take to help reduce your susceptibility to burnout, such as: 

  • Talking to your supervisor or manager about any challenges and concerns before you start to feel stressed and overwhelmed. 
  • Take your leave. Working a year, or longer, without a break may accrue your holiday leave but it could make you more susceptible to burnout. 
  • Practice basic self-care each day including eating well, exercising, and practicing good sleep habits. 
  • Regularly connect with your colleagues. Taking the time to share your experiences and concerns and support to each other has been found to reduce stress and emotional exhaustion. (In fact, since 2020, seeking support from a colleague, or friend, has increased amongst healthcare professionals). 
  • Practice stress management: Regularly take time to rest and participate in activities and pursuits that can help reduce stress and increase health and mental resilience such as yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, swimming, jogging, knitting, reading, and walking outdoors (research has found that spending time outdoors, surrounded by nature, can improve our mood, reduce stress, and improve attention and sleep habits). 
  • Make time to catch up with your family and friends – in person. Their emotional support can help reduce your stress levels and anxiety and improve your mood. 
  • Invest time in stress management: identify and reduce stressors in your life and participate in activities that help keep you mentally healthy like mindfulness and talking to loved ones, family and friends. 

How Better Rehab reduces clinician burnout 

At Better Rehab, everyone plays a part in maintaining a workplace environment and culture that is supportive and positive, from our founder, occupational therapist Rachel Brimblecombe to our managers and discipline leads and our clinicians and support teams. 

We also carefully manage the workloads of our allied health clinicians, provide support, particularly when faced with challenges and stressful situations, and offer greater work-life balance through our Better Flex. Better Flex is an industry-leading program designed to help combat burnout by enabling our clinicians to accommodate their out-of-work commitments within their working week, and ‘build in’ opportunities to relax and recharge. 

Our clinicians are also incredibly proactive in creating a supportive environment in each office. As one of our OTs says, “Going to the office means there is a chance for clinicians from various disciplines to collaborate and brainstorm. It makes me feel really supported and reminds me that I need not be alone in solving problems and can ask for help anytime.” 

And finally, we also combat burnout with our 5 values (Love what you do, We are people people, Frankly, we give a damn, We get sh*t done!, and We Value Ourselves) which reinforce our positive and supportive workplace, and reflect how our occupational therapistsphysiotherapistsspeech pathologistsexercise physiologists and Positive Behaviour Support practitioners approach their roles (and remind them that they are valued and supported!).  

Join a supportive and positive allied health workplace from day one!  

At Better Rehab, you enjoy a supportive environment from your first day – which could be as a graduate! Our industry-leading graduate program for aspiring occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, exercise physiologists and Positive Behaviour Support Practitioners provides plenty of support and insights from experienced clinicians to help set you up for a rewarding career in community allied health. 

And if Better Rehab sounds like the allied health company for you, check out our current job opportunities here

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