Art Therapy: A Tool to Mitigate Professional Burnout

By Talia Singer, Psychotherapist

This is the classic story of burnout, told by one but shared by many. At first it may feel like exhaustion, such as, I should have gotten more sleep because Mondays are a killer. Then it seems like every day is a Monday and getting to work is a chore. Next you may start to notice a negative attitude following you around; a kind of emotional cynicism about work and life in general. You lose your patience easily and feel like you are scraping the bottom of an emotional barrel. Finally, the culmination of these burdensome thoughts and emotions results in illness, time off work and even mental health issues.

Burnout can affect anyone in the workplace, but front line health care workers are particularly vulnerable. In an online survey in 2010 that polled more than 4,500 registered nurses in Canada, working in 257 different locations found that at least 40% of those surveyed reported feelings of burnout (Hildebrant, A., 2013, April 8). I believe that this percentage is too modest, and the problem is much greater.

Front line health care workers share a deep desire to help those who are suffering emotionally. When you are empathizing with another’s pain, you take on this identity temporarily in order to gain full understanding. It is important to keep in mind that the experience belongs to the patient and empathy should turn into compassion. When the boundaries of empathy become unclear, we leave ourselves open to burnout and even secondary trauma, which is not dissimilar to post traumatic stress.

Art therapy can help to express and transform feelings of workplace burnout by processing thoughts and feelings in a creative manner. Burnout can cause both physical and emotional suffering, and art therapy can be a salve to the pain.

Hildebrant, A. (2013, April 8). Nearly 25% of nurses wouldn’t recommend their hospital. CBC (online). Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/nearly-25-of-canadian-nurses-wouldn-t-recommend-their-hospital-1.1304601