Physical Therapy

6 Ways to Prevent Burnout in Your Physical Therapy Practice

Exhausted physical therapist taking a break from work, sitting on a bench outside. The image represents the challenges of physical therapy burnout and the importance of self-care in the healthcare profession.
The impact of burnout has taken a huge toll on physical therapists. Discover how to prevent physical therapy burnout in your clinic.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, another epidemic of sorts has grown in the healthcare field: burnout. Although both individual characteristics and work-related variables contribute to burnout, most of the risk factors of physical therapy burnout are both structural and avoidable — meaning burnout starts and ends on an organizational level.

In 2021, over 50% of healthcare workers reported feelings of burnout when going to work. Like any healthcare profession, physical therapy is a patient-centered, hands-on job, which can be both incredibly rewarding and demanding. But today, physical therapists are often overworked, tired, or emotionally exhausted, resulting in growing levels of physical therapy burnout.

Burnout is a common — and costly — challenge facing PTs today. By using different strategies to address physical therapy burnout directly, you can reduce its impact on PTs, create a better work environment, and improve patient care.

Learn how to spot signs of burnout early

Simply recognizing the problem is one of the most effective ways to combat physical therapy burnout. If you can’t identify the issues your PTs are facing, then you won’t be able to offer adequate support. Identifying signs of burnout starts with understanding the three dimensions of burnout, which are:

  1. Emotional exhaustion, or feeling emotionally overextended and drained by other people
  2. Depersonalization, or the development of negative, cynical, or impersonal feelings toward colleagues, clients, and loved ones
  3. Reduced personal accomplishment, or a decrease in feelings of competence and achievement at work

In addition to the official characteristics of burnout, other common indicators include:

  • Social isolation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Reduced performance and productivity
  • Low employee morale
  • Job turnover
  • Absenteeism

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Use a systemic approach to offering support

Instead of seeing burnout as an individual’s problem with laziness or poor time management, clinic managers should acknowledge signs of burnout in their workforce so they can offer adequate support and stop burnout in its tracks.

Like any other adjustments to clinic policy, tackling burnout requires support from all levels of clinic leadership. Managers, directors, and executives must act as a united front to implement systemic changes and ensure they are truly effective.

For example, clinics can encourage co-treatment, where a PT works with other staff like occupational therapists (OTs) or speech-language pathologists (SLPs) to treat a patient together. By co-treating with multiple disciplines, PTs can learn from other therapists and turn to them for support instead of feeling isolated or dissatisfied with their work.

Clinic leadership can also implement an open-door policy, so PTs feel more comfortable coming to you to talk about their mental health. A more proactive alternative would be to have HR routinely check in with PTs to ask how they’re doing and share tips on how to address burnout early, such as encouraging them to regularly take time off.

Use alternative performance metrics

If clinics primarily measure performance based on billable hours, PTs will be under pressure to get through as many patients as possible, eventually burning themselves out to reach these unrealistic targets. Shifting away from productivity metrics allows PTs to relax instead of worrying if they’re doing enough to stay employed.

While productivity metrics provide valuable information, such as billable hours, they aren’t the most effective way to measure PTs’ performance. Productivity numbers are typically based on time spent on tasks that can be billed to insurance, but PTs are responsible for many other “non-productive” but essential responsibilities, such as documentation and conferring with other team members regarding a patient’s treatment plan.

Instead of relying solely on measuring productivity to evaluate their PTs’ performance, clinic managers can use other metrics like patient outcomes or Net Promoter Score (NPS). These measurements provide concrete data that focus on PTs’ impact, not how many units they bill, for a more holistic evaluation of their performance. Evaluating other areas of performance also enables PTs to focus on all aspects of the job, such as using clinical reasoning for more personalized patient care.

Incorporate new software to support PTs

After the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers had to find remote options that enabled them to offer telehealth options to protect themselves and their patients. Although there is a popular belief that advanced technology could replace PTs and other healthcare professionals, it’s quite the opposite.

Adding software to the clinical setting can support PTs’ everyday responsibilities, like gait analysis. For example, newer software like Exer Gait uses artificial intelligence to record and measure a patient’s gait with incredible accuracy. PTs can then use that data to create customized treatment plans that address their patients’ unique challenges.

Instead of replacing PTs entirely, Exer and other digital tools can actually make their jobs easier, allowing them to perform in-person patient evaluations with less effort. PTs can use Exer Health to measure a patient’s form and mobility to ensure they’re performing their exercises correctly, either at home or in a clinical setting. This eliminates the need for PTs to physically measure a patient’s gait and movements during a session, saving them time that can be otherwise used to adjust a patient’s treatment plan or help them perform their exercises.

Using data collected in real time allows PTs to spend less time on the technical challenges of patient evaluations, so they can focus on targeted patient sessions that result in faster rehabilitation and better patient care overall. By supporting their PTs with the right technology, clinics will see more efficient in-person visits and, ultimately, reduced burnout and employee turnover.

Offer continuing education opportunities

Research shows that monotonous work negatively impacts workers’ mental health and can lead to burnout. Without the novelty of interesting or challenging tasks, employees will become bored, which often leads them to look for a new job. Though it might seem counterintuitive, continuing education classes can motivate PTs to get excited about their work and pursue other areas of physical therapy that interest them.

Rather than letting PTs get stuck in the clinical setting, continuing education allows them to learn new techniques that they can practice to improve their skills and the efficiency of their work. By continuing their studies, PTs can grow their knowledge in areas like insurance compliance and diagnosis, improving both patient outcomes and job performance. Even just breaking up the monotony of clinical work with a continuing education course enables PTs to reflect on how they do things and take another approach to their work.

To support continuing education, clinics should provide additional paid time off so PTs can take these courses without sacrificing personal PTO. Clinic managers might also consider offering reimbursement options and travel allowances as further incentives for PTs to pursue another certification.

Provide flexible scheduling options

Research shows that employees with higher levels of autonomy experience greater job satisfaction and more positive effects on their overall wellbeing. Allowing PTs flexibility with their scheduling provides them with more autonomy and a better work-life balance, which boosts productivity and reduces burnout.

Many PTs find themselves working for far more than 40 hours per week in order to work with their patients’ schedules. Most PT clinics have hours designed to accommodate working patients (e.g., 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.), which provides many opportunities for clinic managers to experiment with alternative work schedules. For example, a schedule of four 10-hour days would protect PTs’ work-life balance, reducing the likelihood of burnout while enabling them to work with patients who aren’t available during normal business hours.

More flexibility in scheduling also allows PTs to perform certain aspects of their job offsite, such as completing documentation while working from home or performing at-home sessions for patients who cannot come into the clinic. In addition to benefiting patients, an alternative work schedule gives PTs more time away from work so they can recharge and come back ready to perform.

Be proactive about physical therapy burnout prevention

Burnout is an official medical diagnosis, and acknowledging it sooner rather than later can prevent PTs from burning out at all. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the most effective way to reduce physical therapy burnout is with a united leadership team that systemically cultivates a supportive work environment. From incorporating newer software solutions to developing a supportive work environment, a proactive approach to physical therapy burnout better supports PTs so they can improve performance and patient outcomes.

Photo by Aaron Burden

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