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The Leading Causes of PT Burnout and How to Prevent It

physical therapy burnout

Burnout. You’ve heard about it, you know it, and you may have even felt it yourself at some point in your career. The word packs a punch and right now it is affecting healthcare providers at an alarming rate. Physical therapists are no exception. 

Burnout isn’t just having a bad day at work, or even a bad week. Per Merriam Webster, it is prolonged stress or frustration that leads to a depletion of motivation and physical or emotional strength. Researchers have defined it within the field of healthcare as being a state of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low sense of personal accomplishment at work. And in a healthcare setting, this can not only have a huge impact on clinicians themselves, but also on patient care and outcomes.

Burnout is very real – and it is affecting at least half of clinical staff, according to recent research. Instead of hoping it won’t impact you or your clinic, let’s take a closer look at it and cover some strategies to address and prevent it.

Leading causes of physical therapist burnout

According to a 2021 report published in the National Library of Medicine, the main factors contributing to physical therapy burnout include:

  • Work overload
  • Physical demands
  • Lack of autonomy
  • Clinical competence

In a survey about work overload and burnout by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, non-physician and non-nurse clinical staff (i.e. physical therapists and other allied health care providers) reported the highest prevalence of work overload. Work overload can include anything from being understaffed to a large volume of clinical notes/paperwork to complete – resulting in not only exhaustion but an inability to reach desired goals. And in recent years, an increased emphasis on productivity – while costs are increasing and salaries are often not – is causing thousands of clinicians to hit a breaking point. When they do, it can create a domino effect where they leave their job and place added pressure on the rest of the team.

In order to minimize the various causes of burnout, it is important to bring awareness to them both at the individual level as well as the clinic level. Clinic leadership can have a huge and meaningful impact in the ways in which burnout is identified, managed, and prevented.

Prevent burnout at the individual level
Mindfulness and self-care routines

As a clinician, nurturing healthy habits in and outside of work is a win for everyone, and can create a foundation that’s more resistant to fatigue. Recognize what you can do for yourself that doesn’t require asking something of your manager. Some strategies that were studied and found to be effective include mindfulness interventions such as meditation, relaxation, gratitude journaling, and yoga. These habits may prove especially helpful in dealing with the secondary trauma that comes from hearing patients discuss their personal lives, injuries, and difficult recovery journeys. 

Protect your work-life balance

A key thing to prevention is to notice how much work starts creeping into your personal time (aka work-life balance). If you’re working (i.e. doing notes, researching new treatment plans, or even thinking about work) during off-hours, stealing time from family and your other interests, this can snowball in a lot of ways. Feeling supported with the right documentation tools and education is one major way to streamline your tasks and ensure you don’t take work home.

Improve your job competencies, improve your confidence

Another essential component is to feel clinically competent in your treatments, workflows, and decision-making. Seeking out mentorship either formally or informally is a great way to continue to learn new things and feel positive about your clinical skills.

Proper physical mechanics during treatment

There are also a number of physical demands of the job that contribute to burnout (ex. lifting, carrying, transferring patients, and manual therapy). This is where good body mechanics come into play; really take the time to set up any treatments or transfers with good positioning to limit the demands on your own body!

Honest communication with your managers

Physical therapists can only take on so much of the responsibility of burnout prevention. For instance, clinicians won’t have time for self-care routines like meditation or journaling if they are being asked to take on too many patients or they are stuck documenting after hours on outdated tools. If you’re a provider or staff member who notices some aspects of the job are affecting your balance, you should respectfully bring them up to leadership and see how you can work together to address them.

Prevent burnout at the clinic level
Address the topic directly with your team

The main theme from the clinic perspective should be: We recognize burnout is a real thing, we want to do all we can to prevent it. This can start with something as simple as talking about it. It could be a weekly, monthly, or quarterly check-in with staff and physical therapists asking how they are feeling. Some clinics may find it helpful to even provide a workplace assessment for their staff to complete in order to guide the discussion, or post resources on burnout in the breakroom (find more information here).

Help your team feel supported and fulfilled at work

Regular team meetings can also help build positive team relations, which goes a long way for your team’s well-being. People that are happy at work feel supported by their co-workers and managers and like they are truly a part of the organization, and may feel more fulfillment in their work and also hopefully more comfortable bringing up any concerns related to burnout. Support also comes in providing physical therapists the best tools for the job including exercise equipment, an efficient EMR system, and continuing education to excel in their roles.

Optimize your team’s job processes where you can

One of the biggest factors affecting burnout is the job demand of productivity. This is both a physical therapist and a clinic concern, with the push-pull dynamics of the bottom line and preservation of the health and wellness of your physical therapy staff at stake. Business processes such as coding optimization, patient compliance with their plan of care, etc., can all contribute to tightening up the bottom line so your clinic doesn’t need to make up any differences in revenue by simply increasing the volume of patients and increasing the chances of staff burnout. 

Encourage autonomy in your team’s roles

Another positive step is to empower therapists in their autonomous decision-making and planning for patient treatment plans. Some physical therapists may feel less autonomy depending on constraints from a referring provider regarding a plan of care. Encouraging strong relationships with referring providers can help lead to greater understanding of the overall goals for a patient treatment plan and help everyone on the care team feel like they have a voice. 

Offer mentorship opportunities

Research also shows that mentorship and self-efficacy are modifiable factors that can protect against burnout. Not only does team building and mentorship help with creating a positive work environment for clinicians, it can also instill a greater self-belief in their abilities and decrease the chance for burnout. 

Ensure that your providers aren’t overworked

Finally, work overload can be addressed by ensuring there is adequate staffing levels of clinicians and support staff. If possible, provide some additional documentation time during office hours so that therapists can leave their work at the clinic. With help from a modern practice management solution, your existing front desk staff and billers can support the provider team more effectively. And with the right tools, you can review productivity metrics at the clinic and whether or not they can be adjusted to decrease stress on the therapy staff. This can also help to change the way productivity is discussed and supported by the team.

Provide the best tools for the job 

Burnout often results when job resources are not sufficient to cover the job demands. So make sure you have the systems in place to cut down documentation time, keep schedules running smoothly, ensure proper compensation and avoid audits, and help staff engage with patients. If you’re using outdated technology at your practice to cut corners, it may end up being your team’s (and your practice’s) worst enemy by slowing you down, costing you missed revenue, and – by causing so much unnecessary frustration and extra work – taking a toll on your team’s well-being. For nearly every contributing factor to burnout, modern technology will enable your entire staff to work more efficiently and deliver better care. 

The same can be said for outdated and worn-out equipment and office amenities. Don’t let the idea of saving a few dollars a month be the reason your team can’t do their jobs well, and potentially burns out in the process. Set them up for success and you’ll see the benefits tenfold, from their day-to-day energy to your patients hitting their treatment goals and generating positive word of mouth for your practice.

Conclusion

Burnout among physical therapists is a concern not only for the individuals themselves, but for the clinic as a whole, and most of all the patients. By utilizing some of the methods above, your clinic will be able to identify and prevent burnout to keep your patients receiving the highest standard of care by physical therapists at their best!

About the author:

Chelsea Krotser is an outpatient orthopedic physical therapist and freelance writer. Drawing on her experience as a PT as well as her former life as an accountant, she is dedicated to providing an insightful clinical and business perspective. She loves writing about all things related to physical therapy. You can find her on Instagram @chelseakrotser.

Prompt Staff

Prompt Therapy Solutions builds practice management software for physical therapy clinics ranging from single provider practices and startups, to large enterprise organizations.

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