Burnout is a pervasive issue across healthcare fields, and occupational therapy is no exception. Reducing burnout with school-based OT requires special consideration due to its interaction between healthcare and education, two fields that each face their own unique challenges with work-life balance. Burnout is more than just work-related stress, and most of its causes are at the industry level. While most of the factors that lead to burnout are not in the control of any individual, there are certain steps you can take to avoid or reduce burnout with your own work.
Only work when you’re getting paid
Whether you’re getting paid hourly or salary, it is incredibly important to only work while you’re getting paid. For hourly types, this is easier – if you’re working, you’re on the clock. For those on salary, this might get a bit harder, but refer to your contract. It’s likely that it is written for 35, 37.5, or 40 hours a week. While you might be able to be more flexible about when you do things, you should never work over the number of hours you’re contracted for. This is easier said than done, but is absolutely possible!
Take your work email off your phone
Trust me on this one. Keeping work email on your phone makes it so easy to slip into doing “just a little” work off the clock. This is a boundary that is much easier to set (with both yourself and your coworkers) at the beginning of the year. If you’re itinerant and use your phone a lot during the workday, you can compromise by taking push notifications off so that you’ll never be surprised by a stressful email on a Saturday.
Get comfortable saying no
This is a skill you will refer back to many times, perhaps especially in regards to not working off the clock. Know that it is okay to say no to taking on tasks that you don’t have the time for. Saying “no” to something optional means that you are saying “yes” to tasks that you’ve already committed to and are more important. Again, easier said than done, but this is a skill you can improve with practice.
Ask for what you need
Often, burnout at work is caused by feeling a lack of control. If you don’t have the resources you need to do your job effectively, ask for them. If you find yourself getting frustrated that you don’t have an assessment that covers a specific area, order it. If you aren’t able to give students the treatment materials they need, schedule a conversation with your supervisor. Yes, it’s always possible that they will say no. But if we don’t let our admin know we’re struggling, we may be quietly suffering without them realizing anything is wrong. Give them the opportunity to say no to you so that you can evaluate your next course of action.
Advocate for more staffing
So often, burnout and overwhelm in the schools are caused by being put into positions that should really be done by two therapists. Staffing issues are not your fault or responsibility. But if we continue to accept this type of workload, nothing will ever change. Doing a time study and showing your administration how impossible it is to do your job in a normal workweek is a good place to start.
Get support from loved ones
Experiencing the effects of burnout is much more stressful without a support team. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t keep it a secret. Reach out to your family, friends, and other loved ones for help. Let them know if you just want to rant or if you actually want to talk out potential solutions to the challenges you’re facing.
Use breaks for trips and self-care
I know so many people in education who use their breaks to catch up on work. Don’t let this be you! No assessment report is so important that it must be written over winter break. Take a look at your schedule a few weeks before breaks are scheduled to ensure you’re blocking off enough time to meet deadlines that will occur shortly after your return. This will ensure you’re actually enjoying your vacation and not rushing back to your computer to enter BOT-2 scores.
Take days off
Everyone deserves to take days off now and then. If your district gives you personal days, use them! If using a personal day causes your whole week to be thrown off due to missed sessions that you are forced to make up, you may need to have a conversation with your supervisor about expectations here. Also – mental health days are sick days. Don’t let the stigma stop you from taking care of yourself.
Consider taking a longer sabbatical
If you feel that you’re at your breaking point, consider taking a longer leave from work. While this may feel extreme, it’s much better to be proactive about this than get to the point of actually having a breakdown. If you are facing mental anguish that is affecting your health, you may even qualify for FMLA.
Know when it’s time to quit
You likely became a school-based OT because you love helping kids, so this is a hard conversation to have with yourself. But toxic work environments are not sustainable, and if you’ve done everything you can to advocate for yourself and your students with nothing changing, you have to set a boundary for yourself. This may mean applying for a job in a different district. It may mean moving to work in a more supportive district or even in a more supportive state. It may mean that you have to change settings. It may mean starting your own business to provide services on your own terms. These are not easy decisions. But they are decisions that must be made if you find yourself returning to a job year after year that makes you miserable.
Burnout has very real physical and mental health consequences, so it’s important to take action when you first notice the signs of it. Occupational therapy is such a meaningful profession, and you deserve to have a role where you can make a difference without feeling stressed and overwhelmed all the time. I hope this gave you some ideas to reduce burnout in school-based OT. And if you’re looking to get more support with your work-life balance, I’d love to have you in my signature program, The Dynamic School OT. Please reach out if you have any questions!