How can therapists get better at self-care?

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After a pause in my writing over the summer, I find myself approaching the reflective season of autumn with renewed purpose for this blog. It was partly a lack of self-care that led to me experiencing symptoms of burnout two years ago. It was my need to prevent it from happening again that encouraged me to write about living a more playful life.

Thinking back to my training as a psychologist in the 1990’s, I barely recall any mention of ‘self care’ by our tutors. Grateful as I am to have been supervised by experienced therapists during those rookie days, I realise now that many were on the brink of burnout themselves. Briefcases overflowed with dog-eared folders of patient’s notes yet to be written up; clinics were booked back to back with patients, with no time to rest or reflect in between each appointment; lunchtimes were often speedy ‘team’ trips to the pub at the behest of my boss, for a quick pint or two- time to eat was seen as a bonus.

Psychology training courses have changed in 25 years- self-care is higher up the agenda. Trainees are offered paid-for sessions of personal therapy, meetings with mentors and personal tutors. It is sad then to read statistics from a recently published survey suggesting that 46 percent of psychological therapists report themselves to be depressed and 70 percent as finding their job stressful. Burnout is as prevalent as ever.

So where do we turn for the answer? Can we rely on the only national body representing psychologists – The British Psychological Society (BPS)-to bail us out? They have offered ‘A Charter for Psychological Wellbeing and Resilience,’ asking healthcare leaders for a greater focus on support for staff wellbeing. Other, more entrepreneurial individuals, have launched Apps with enticing titles such as ‘DeStressify’, designed to offer simple solutions to tackle job-related stress and burnout. Coincidentally, I have just read in The New York Times that that App usage as a whole has stalled, due to  smartphone users hitting burnout!

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Experience tells me that strategies such as turning to a tech device or seeking the support of NHS managers for a BPS driven charter are unlikely to make a long term difference. Cultural change within the health service is desired, but some might say that as individual professionals, we have a responsibility to change our own personal culture first. In my next post I’ll be sharing some core routines that have helped me to emerge from burnout.

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