Simpson, S., Simionato, G., Smout, M., van Vresswijk, M.F., Hayes, C., Sougleris, C., & Reid, C. (2018). Burnout amongst clinical and counselling psychologist: The role of early maladaptive schemas and coping modes as vulnerability factors. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Online first DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2328.
Burnout in health professionals has become a global problem, with between 21% and 67% of mental health professionals reporting high levels. Researchers define burnout as including three components: emotional exhaustion (feeling emotionally exhausted from the work), depersonalization (feeling disconnected from patients), and reduced personal accomplishment in one’s work. Burnout is related to reduced capacity to perform professionally and to provide adequate care to patients. Much of the research has focused on institutional and workload factors as causes of burnout in health professionals. However, interpersonal factors like therapists’ early maladaptive schemas and coping mechanisms may also increase vulnerability to burnout. Early maladaptive schemas are self-defeating core beliefs and patterns that are repeated throughout one’s life and that have their origin in early life experiences. Maladaptive coping are thoughts and behaviors that one repeatedly engages in an unconscious or automatic way to minimize the activation of early maladaptive schemas. Maladaptive coping might include detachment, self-aggrandizement, attacking others, or over-compliance. In this study, Simpson and colleagues surveyed 443 clinical or counseling psychologists in Australia to assess if in fact early maladaptive schemas and maladaptive coping predicted burnout over and above job demands like workload. The mean age of the psychologists was 42.93 years (SD = 11.53), most were women (80.4%), who were married (52.8%), had attained a Masters degree (45.6%), and worked either in outpatient mental health centres (39.7%) or in private practice (33%). Most of the therapists (67%) indicated that over 50% of their client work involved trauma. Of the sample, 49.7% indicated at least a moderately high level of burnout on a standardized questionnaire, with emotional exhaustion as the highest type of burnout. The most common early maladaptive schemas among the psychologists were unrelenting standards and self-sacrifice. Detached coping was the most common coping mode. In terms of predicting burnout, job demands accounted for 10% of the variance in burnout, early maladaptive schemas accounted for an additional 18% of the variance in burnout over and above job demands, and maladaptive coping accounted for an additional 6% beyond maladaptive schemas and job demands.
Work – life balance, managing clients with chronic and complex issues, and working with clients who experienced trauma can cause distress in mental health providers. Psychologists’ early maladaptive schemas like unrelenting standards and self-sacrifice in addition to maladaptive detached coping may represent the foundation of countertransference for some psychotherapists. These were significant predictors of therapist emotional exhaustion over and above workload. Psychotherapists would benefit from an increased awareness of their own early maladaptive schemas and coping mechanisms. Self-care, including professional development, consultations, peer support groups, and personal therapy throughout one’s career could reduce one’s susceptibility to burnout.