How to Manage Stress and Prevent Burnout as an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy can be a challenging and demanding field, both physically and mentally, as therapists often work with patients who have a variety of their own physical, mental, and emotional needs. However, it can also be a very rewarding and fulfilling career, as therapists have the opportunity to help patients and their families improve their quality of life and achieve their goals.

It’s important for occupational therapists to manage their stress levels in order to provide the best care for their patients. But how? Some strategies for managing stress include setting boundaries for work, practicing self-care, and seeking support from colleagues and supervisors. You can feel like you’re alone on an island, but you are not. Additionally, occupational therapists may find that the positive outcomes they achieve with their patients, however small, can help counteract any stress they may experience.

Some of us may be perfectionists, but try to have realistic expectations for yourself and your patients. Setting unrealistic goals or expecting too much from patients can lead to feelings of frustration and disappointment. Try to meet patients where they are at. You can’t save or help everyone and there will be ups and downs. Occupational therapists should work with their patients to set realistic and achievable goals that are tailored to the patient’s individual needs, abilities, and preferences. This can be easier said than done as many patients may not be as motivated. Try to focus on the progress that patients are making, rather than on what they haven’t achieved yet.

Occupational therapists should also be aware of their own limitations and know when to refer patients to other healthcare professionals. As a new grad, this may be more of the case. But even the most seasoned OTs out there should be humble and lifelong learners. They should be able to recognize when a patient’s needs fall outside of their own area of expertise, and should be comfortable with making referrals to other specialists or healthcare providers. We work as a team, or can work as one to reduce our burden as OTs.

Another way to manage stress in occupational therapy is by being open to feedback and constructive criticism. This does not need to always be from work, it can be from peers you respect and friends by asking them for their input on your thoughts. But overall, occupational therapists should be open to receiving feedback from their colleagues, supervisors, and patients. This can help them to identify areas where they can improve and to make adjustments to their practice as needed as career development.

Managing stress in occupational therapy is an ongoing process that requires self-awareness, good self-care habits, patience, communication, and support. Occupational therapists should have realistic expectations, recognize their limitations, be open to feedback, and continuously learn and grow in their field. The field is also constantly adapting and changing, so don’t expect that you don’t need to as well and this comes with stress. An example is having to learn a new documentation software.

Self-care

Occupational therapists can practice self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, breathing, music listening, or yoga. Practice what we preach. They can also set realistic goals and boundaries, and communicate their needs and concerns with their colleagues, supervisors, and patients. Supportive supervision and mentorship can also be beneficial in managing stress, as occupational therapists can gain valuable guidance and feedback from more experienced colleagues. This may not be available at work, so seek mentorship elsewhere such as online.

Professional Development


Another way occupational therapists can manage stress is by getting involved in professional development activities such as continuing education, attending workshops, or joining professional organizations. It is worth finding or making the time for this as you can connect socially, a very important occupation as we all know. This can help you stay up-to-date with the latest research and best practices, and connect with other occupational therapists and healthcare workers who understand the unique demands and rewards of the field to keep things interesting.

Time management and Balancr

Occupational therapists often have a lot of responsibilities and may have to multitask and prioritize their duties. By creating a schedule or to-do list, they can set realistic goals and make sure that they complete the most important tasks first. Try to rethink your approach and workflow. Occupational therapists can also try to delegate certain tasks to other members of the healthcare team when appropriate such as with COTAs or other OTs.

It’s also important for occupational therapists to have a good work-life balance. This can be difficult for some due to having debt and wanting to pay it off, but there are still ways to achieve this. When possible, try setting aside time for hobbies, spending time with family and friends, and taking regular breaks throughout the day, even if to just breathe and clear your head. This helps to prevent burnout and allows occupational therapists to come back to work feeling refreshed and recharged. So restful sleep is also important and reducing or eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and drugs.

Psychosocial

Try focusing on the positive aspects of their job, such as the progress and accomplishments of their patients. It will take practice. This can help to remind them of the importance and impact of their work. So try using CBT or ACT on yourself. Find support from friends and family. Consider professional help. Many organizations have free counseling and mental health services under employee wellness programs that are also confidential.

Try to find a sense of purpose in your work, however small. Occupational therapists should remind themselves of why they chose to become an occupational therapist in the first place, and what they hope to achieve in their career. The why. This can help you to stay motivated and to maintain a positive outlook, even when things get tough. What do you value? What is meaningful to you? Is it seeing a patient succeed? Or even simply thanking you for the work that you do? Everyone is inspired by different things.

Burnout Signs

Learn to recognize and look out for signs of burnout and to address them if they occur. Burnout can manifest in various ways, such as physical and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. There is a burnout scale you can take to see how you fall on the spectrum. If occupational therapists notice these signs, they should take steps to address them, such as taking a break, seeking support, or adjusting their workload as mentioned. Don’t be afraid to talk to management about how you feel. You may be surprised about how things may go. While it may not necessarily mean a reduced caseload or reduced hours, management can help find ways to support the wonderful work that you do as an occupational therapist.

Many jobs come with their own stressors and downsides. The same applies to OT. Reflect back on why you chose OT. It’s easy to compare the profession to others and see the downsides. But it also has many upsides. Remember, maybe even write down the positives and successes as a reminder. Reach out and get involved and avoid things like negative social media posts and groups that are burnout echo chambers. Find inspiration from peers and those you admire and respect. Sometimes, this may mean considering changing jobs or settings. And that’s okay. But occupational therapy has a lot to offer and things can always be better as well. Take the time to weigh the pros and cons, talk to someone you trust about it, and consider what’s ultimately best for you and your mental, and physical health.

Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, sociology, and philosophy. Buy me a Coffee on Venmo.