A 3-Step Plan to Deal with Burnout as a Physical Therapist


Today’s post is a guest post from Jenna Gourlay and Phil Plisky from Professional Rebellion.  We recently featured a podcast episode where we discussed how to avoid burnout as a physical therapist.  We talked about some of our strategies for avoiding, overcoming, and propelling yourself forward.  After releasing that, Jenna and Phil reached out to let me know they started a website to help physical therapists deal with burnout.  Here’s some great tips below, but also check out their website.

I could feel myself getting madder and madder. Not like an annoyed mad where you just need to step away for a minute, mad like I had to bite down to stop myself from saying anything I’d regret.

He just didn’t get it.

And even though he didn’t get it, he was still trying to give me advice.

I’m sitting there telling him how burnt out I am and how much I hate Physical Therapy and he’s telling me I need to change my caseload and change my attitude.

Really? Change my attitude, like I just chose this one? You think I want to be burnt out?

This is exactly what I wanted (eye roll)… to spend a ridiculous amount of time and money on a career I can’t stand.

No, I legitimately feel like I need to leave my career in PT. I cannot listen to one more patient tell me that he has an eleven out of ten pain and a high pain tolerance after arriving ten minutes late. I can’t do it.

I can’t muster the energy to try and inspire unmotivated patients. I can’t be satisfied with the average PT salary, the average PT schedule, or the average PT caseload.

He doesn’t understand… He isn’t the average and he doesn’t get what it is like to be stuck and have no idea how to move forward. He doesn’t understand the feeling of not having control over your day. Of not being able to figure out a time to go to the dentist, let alone get a haircut. He doesn’t have the loans that, regardless of how many payments are made, seem to gain interest as quickly as its paid.

He experiences none of this… but he’s telling me to own my day. Well, my day sucks and I don’t want to own it…

How to Deal with Burnout as a Physical Therapist

This was years ago now, but the memory of the feeling hasn’t left. I remember how frustrated, mad, and hopeless I felt. I remember thinking that everyone giving advice was doing so from their ivory tower and therefore just didn’t understand.

But, here’s my mistake: The people I was talking to were in a much different position than I was. They had a much better day than I did and they loved PT in a way I couldn’t fathom. BUT, they COULD relate and their advice was actually genuine, not accusatory.

They were speaking from already having experienced what I was experiencing.

Burnout isn’t your fault, but getting past it has to become your mission.

I hate to say it, but eventually you have to accept the problem of burnout as your own. I know, I know, I’m doing the exact thing that made me so angry. But, the reason everyone tells you what to do or how to beat it is because they recognize that no one is going to rescue you.

3 Step Plan to Overcome Physical Therapy Burnout

I’ve seen all the videos of what is wrong in healthcare and why its causing burnout. I agree, but I think we are far from an entire overhaul of the healthcare system to fix the problem of burnout.

The only way to fix our situation is to change it ourselves with the support of others.

Want to know what I did? Here’s my 3 step plan that I used that may also help you.

Step One: Find Your Ideal

It has been said that people are happiest when they are learning and growing. Have you been working toward a new set of skills or knowledge? And if you have, have you been intentional about it?

If not, this can be a big source of burnout.

Take a look a the person who has your ideal career. What do you need to study to set yourself up for the opportunities you are looking for?

Make a list of what you need to get you where you want to go. Do you need better manual skills, a higher level evaluation approach, public speaking ability, or teaching experience? Once you know what you need, start finding the courses, books, or opportunities you need to get yourself there. This is your personalized growth plan and it will act as your road map.

  • Look at where you are and where you ultimately want to be
  • List the skills you’ll need, the people you may need to be involved with, and/or the information you need to learn

Step Two: Don’t Just Plan, Go Do It

The thing about burnout is that you get stuck in this never ending cycle. You’re burnt out so you feel exhausted, and then you feel exhausted so you don’t have the energy to change anything about being burnt out.

When this goes on long enough, it is human nature to feel like we need some grandiose plan. We start planning and planning and planning then we get tired or lose momentum by the time it comes to acting.

Treat beating burnout like row of dominos. Do one thing and let a chain reaction occur where you continue to progress.

  • Choose ONE action and do it NOW
  • Choose a SECOND action and SCHEDULE when you will do it

Step Three: Find Your Team

Burnout is not something to address alone. The power of having good people around you is unparalleled when it comes to changing your environment. People to challenge you, support you and hold you accountable can be the difference between being stuck and propelling forward.

Be intentional about the team that you create around you.

Some may already have this available at work while others may need to be more creative in joining a tribe, like Mike’s Inner Circle.

A group to support and guide you should never be underestimated.

  • Look for others in positions or areas you wish to grow into and start to “seek what they sought.” Take courses, read articles, join discussions.
  • Find a group to hold you accountable. This is best when it is made up of individuals also aiming to level up and progress.
  • Establish a mentor to help guide you through the process. No one said it was easy and no one has all the answers. The best thing we can do is find someone to help and provide perspective along the way.

Ready to End Your Physical Therapy Burnout?

Burnout is not the end, burnout is the beginning.

What comes after it is what will ultimately define you. It can be the first step in going from average to amazing. Do you have negative and frustrating feelings? Burnout is not your greatest setback, it’s the secret weapon to your next success; go get something amazing.

Ready to end your physical therapy burnout?

Great. The first step is getting started!

Looking for more resources to jumpstart your career, check out some of the free resources at the Professional Rebellion:

About the Authors

Jenna Gourlay, PT, DPT, SCS, is the co-founder of the Professional Rebellion, a platform where people believe their ideal career is possible come together.  She is currently working toward her ideal career and wants as many people as possible to join her on the journey.  She is an adjunct professor at the University of Evansville, works with the women’s volleyball and basketball teams, and mentors within the sports residency program of ProRehab and University of Evansville. She believes that the top is not the loneliest and that we climb best together.

Phil Plisky, PT, DSc, OCS, ATC, CSCS, is the co-founder of the Professional Rebellion, where he guides and mentors professionals on the path to their ideal careers.  His mission is to advance the profession by inspiring those with the power to change it.  He does this as a researcher, Associate Professor at the University of Evansville, Director of the Sports Residency program, co-developer in Functional Movement Systems, and professional sports consultant.

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