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Emotional Exhaustion & Stress Amongst Clinicians: A Recipe for Burnout


Professionals who perform emotional labor for an extended period of time are more vulnerable to emotional exhaustion. And due to the nature of their job, emotional exhaustion is a common issue for many clinicians working to provide mental health care to their clientele.

The impact of emotional exhaustion on the personal wellbeing of therapists also can’t be understated. Burnout is not only a source of profound job dissatisfaction and demotivation; it materially harms your health.

Most therapists know the impact of chronic stress and fatigue. Many dedicate their day-to-day work helping clients overcome these very challenges. And yet, managing their own issues as it relates to stress can often feel like an impossible task. In order to meaningfully adjust their relationship with work, clinicians must confront the very real obstacles that they face every day in behavioral health care.

Defining Emotional Exhaustion

Deploying strategies for reducing stress starts with a clear understanding of burnout and emotional exhaustion.

“Stress is having too much. Too many tasks, too many working hours, too many responsibilities. Burnout is having too little. Too little energy, too little motivation, too little care for the work you do.” - Elisabeth Morray

Emotional exhaustion is the culmination of continuous stress, compassion fatigue, and overwork. In many ways, emotional exhaustion can feel similar to symptoms of depression, namely fatigue, decreased concentration, loss of interest, and feelings of worthlessness.


Burnout and emotional exhaustion are related experiences, but with subtle distinctions. Emotional exhaustion is a symptom of burnout, and often one of the earliest signs that you’re approaching really severe burnout.

While burnout often includes emotional exhaustion, it can also look and feel somewhat different. Almost always, though, burnout is much greater than everyday tiredness. Burnout happens when external factors are in conflict with our internal values at work, igniting an unsustainable and dysfunctional cycle of stress.

There’s a bevy of techniques therapists can use to avoid burning out. But, once a clinician finds themself in that cycle, it can feel impossible to escape.

Signs of emotional exhaustion

Tiredness isn’t the only sign that a therapist might notice when they start to experience emotional exhaustion. There are a number of questions clinicians can ask themselves to explore if they’re simply fatigued, or buckling under burnout.

  • Do you feel like the passenger, and not the driver, in your practice?
  • In the past two weeks, how many times have you felt rewarded for your work?
  • Do you feel persistent anxiety around admin work?
  • If yes, has that anxiety ever evolved to a sense of resignation?
  • Have you noticed yourself resenting the work clients require outside of sessions?

While these questions are helpful prompts for reflection, you won’t find them in the DSM-5. For help unpacking your experiences of stress, you can seek support from a therapist of your own.

The Growing Problem of Provider Burnout

If you’re a therapist that thinks they’re experiencing emotional exhaustion: you’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.

Chronic stress is a common experience among clinicians. In one 2020 study, a whopping 92% of psychologists surveyed reported they were feeling some symptoms of burnout.

At the same time, there’s a nationwide shortage of behavioral health care providers and when barriers to entering the profession are higher than ever.

It’s no coincidence! Burnout is as much a result of external circumstances as it is internal factors. Confronting the common challenges facing clinicians is an important part of mitigating your exhaustion.

Common Stressors for Clinicians

After 20 years of studying burnout, Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson identified six ways that our work lives can trigger burnout. Unfortunately, many of those stressors are commonly present in the behavioral health field.


Building your caseload is often important to make this line of work financially sustainable. But, as caseloads grow, the administrative burden tends to grow exponentially. When you have an unrealistic amount of work to chase, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed. When that stress becomes a persistent pattern, it’s reasonable to question what it’s all for.

If you’re feeling the onset of burnout as a result of your workload, try focusing more on efficiency in your practice. What tools could you try — even new AI tools — to save some time?

Look for opportunities to simplify, streamline, and consolidate. Are you juggling multiple platforms for scheduling, billing, progress notes, and directories? Consider a full-service EHR like Alma to reclaim some time.


In order to make their work financially rewarding, common convention tells therapists to build a caseload of cash pay clients that are willing to pay higher rates.

And — while there’s no wrong way to run your practice — that approach can distance some clinicians from the very work that got them into the field in the first place.

Finding a sense of gratification in your work is essential for fighting burnout, but therapists face real obstacles to feel rewarded in their work. Platforms like Alma empower clinicians to earn enhanced reimbursement rates from insurance networks so they can remain accessible to any client in need.

Your work should feel rewarding, including pay. If you haven’t felt that for a while, figure out where you can look to find gratification within yourself.


Therapists in private practice have to contend with massive insurance networks, arduous licensure requirements, taxes - the list goes on.

And yet, those who seek the support of a group practice are forced to operate within the processes and procedures of a bigger organization.

Control is an invaluable weapon in the fight against emotional exhaustion, and looking for empowerment can help you overcome burnout. If you want the freedom of a private practice, with the resources of a larger organization, consider building a private practice backed by Alma.


Private practice clinicians must shoulder a lot whilst creating environments for clients to heal.

When Alma was founded, we quickly saw that our most important offering wasn’t the brick-and-mortar space for private practices. Instead, it was the sense of community. The jokes shared in between sessions. The Continuing Education opportunities. The community events, on the rooftop. The doors left intentionally open in the corridor.

Today, in addition to being a full-service EHR, Alma is a close community with over 20,000 fellow clinicians that members can connect with.

Learn more about Alma’s community of clinicians


Maslach and Jackson found that fairness — or rather, a lack thereof — was one of the most common contributors to emotional exhaustion in the workplace.

If you’re feeling burnt out, you might want to visit any feelings you’ve had around situations that felt unfair. How did you fall into that situation? Who, ultimately, had the power to influence a less-than-fair outcome?

It might be that you have really healthy boundaries with your clients. And also, if you’ve harbored unacknowledged resentment for the difficult position your clients put you in, that makes sense too.

If outstanding invoices, no-shows, or inappropriate texts have you feeling less-than-respected, consider ways you can fortify your boundaries with clients to ensure you can support them as effectively as possible.


There is no such thing as a therapist without passion.

No clinician has found their way into this profession without incredible dedication, drive, and purpose.

If you endured advanced education, student loans, supervision, licensure, and credentialing, it’s because you have a special spark that is driving you to this work. You have an intuition, and a knowing, of just how important this work is.

In many ways, burnout is an emblem of embers when that flame grows dim.

Emotional exhaustion often happens when you feel far away from what got you into this work in the first place. If you experience burnout, it might be a sign to return to what motivated you to overcome all the challenges that come with this field.

Take Care of Yourself

The world needs therapists who can give expert, compassionate care. Clinicians can’t do that if they’re burnt out and exhausted.

Behavioral health care is important, and, it’s hard. If you take on this noble profession, you should be prepared to experience very real obstacles that challenge your emotional wellbeing.

Resourcing yourself to overcome burnout is a part of this work. Finding the easy way, sometimes, is a part of this work — even if that’s just finding somebody to take care of credentialing for you.

When you’re ready to make your work more rewarding, learn about the benefits of joining Alma.

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A headshot of Kevin Doherty, content marketer at Alma.
Kevin Doherty

About the Author

Kevin Doherty is a marketer and storyteller at Alma, an online platform that aims to simplify access to high-quality, equitable, and affordable mental health care. An alumnus of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, Kevin specializes in bringing powerful entertainment principles into everyday, real-life communication.

Article Reviewed by Merhawi Kidane