Why Therapy For Burnout May Not Work

Going to therapy for burnout could be crazier than the exhaustion you feel. Dr. Amy O’Hana, mental health therapist and burnout expert, explains three reasons why. 

Truth: Your work has been a drag for a long time. And it’s making you cranky. You’re exhausted and you can’t get anything done. It’s not a secret to you or anyone else — you’re burned out

Will therapy fix your work blues? It’s something you’ve considered. But therapy itself is another big investment, taking time, money, and effort that you may not have right now. 

My name is Dr. Amy O’Hana, and I’m an expert in burnout. Admittedly, I’m an expert in my own burnout! But I also wrote a doctoral dissertation and then a book about it. I’ve been a mental health therapist for 20 years, and I’m going to share three reasons why therapy for burnout may not work — and what you can do instead. 

#1 – Burnout is Not a Mental Health Disorder

The most compelling reason that therapy for burnout probably won’t work? It’s not a mental health disorder. 

Mental health therapists treat mental health disorders, which are defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). But you won’t find burnout in the DSM-5. 

The closest diagnosis in the DSM-5 is occupational problem, which is classified as a psychosocial stressor. This classification is supported by the World Health Organization’s definition of burn-out as an “occupational phenomenon resulting from workplace stress” (2019). 

Burnout is not the problem. Instead, it is a response to a problem. 

But in order to bill insurance, your therapist must give you a DSM-5 diagnosis, which is a problem that informs the counseling treatment plan. Burnout symptoms look a lot like anxiety and depression, and may have co-occurring substance use. While those mental health diagnoses might develop along with burnout, they are not the full description of the problem. An incorrect diagnosis means you could waste a lot of time, money, and effort trying to treat burnout that was misdiagnosed as a mental health disorder. 

#2 – Therapy May Not Be The Right Kind

Many therapists are trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which improves life through creating positive thinking strategies. It’s true that CBT has solid research outcomes in its effectiveness, especially in managing anxiety and improving mood. 

But the problem with using CBT to treat burnout is that it’s not a mind-based problem. This is different from what much of the information available on burnout today tells you. If only you would do things differently, set different goals, modify your schedule …. Then you could fix this burnout thing. 

Instead, we need to think about burnout differently. My research indicates that the cause of burnout is a disconnection — a disconnection within your core self, with your work, and with a larger sense of meaning. 

Burnout does impact your cognition (attitude and focus) as well as your physical body (fatigue and productivity). But it especially impacts your heart and emotions, which is where you experience joy, passion, and fulfillment.

CBT alone likely won’t work. You must change your heart before you can change your mind. 

#3 – Burnout Is A Loss of Meaning

Speaking of making meaning … Humans work to survive, but it’s bigger than that. Productivity is a large way of how we make meaning, which then improves your self-esteem and increases your energy to achieve goals. 

Meaning is about why you work, not what you do for work. 

Making meaning is how you gain mastery over circumstances, especially difficult circumstances. When life is devoid of meaning, or when it’s hard to make meaning in a difficult season, you dry up and “lose heart.” This is just another way of saying: I’m burned out

It’s no wonder that emotional exhaustion — or the inability to feel the passion you once felt — is the biggest indicator of burnout. 

Getting your passion back is rarely about the tasks you do at work, the size of your paycheck, or even the prestige you may have from your job title. Passion comes from the heart, and the heart seeks meaning. 

What To Do Instead of Therapy 

Now I’m not undercutting therapy — it’s the work I’m passionate about. What I am saying is that if you decide to go to therapy for burnout, there are a few things that you must know. 

Heart-centered healing can include therapy. But if your therapist has not diagnosed your burnout properly, doesn’t have a solid understanding of treating vocational issues, and is not comfortable delving into your emotional connection to work (which includes existential and/or spiritual issues), then therapy can’t be your only solution. 

*If you truly do have a mental disorder, whether stand-alone or co-occurring, please do seek mental health therapy in order to be diagnosed and treated properly. 

Burnout is not the problem. Instead, it is a response to a problem.

You probably consciously became aware of your burnout when it started creating problems in your life — like when you couldn’t concentrate anymore, when you put on a few pounds, or when you got really sarcastic. But by then, it’s already too late. 

Since burnout begins in your heart, it’s imperative that you understand there is a disconnection somewhere that must be explored and repaired. This takes commitment on your part to do the soul-searching work necessary to resolve it. 

A great place to start is my guide Five Ways to Fall in Love With Work This Week. When you subscribe you’ll get this guide for free as well as periodic emails with heart-felt tips for beating burnout and creating a life you love. 

Also, check out my book Beyond Burnout: What To Do When Work Isn’t Working For You. It might just be the first step to making things work once again! 

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