Preventing Burnout

That dreaded word: Burnout

Burnout is very real in this field, and is common among social service occupations in general.
The work that we do, while extremely rewarding, can also be challenging, frustrating, disappointing, and sometimes dangerous (such as with aggressive clients). Since we are all only human, we are not immune to burnout.

Staff who are experiencing burnout are sloppy at their work, they make careless mistakes, they “go through the motions” without actually trying to connect with their clients, or they are snippy and irritable where they should be patient and persistent.

Sometimes you can’t tell when you are burned out on a client, or on a job, and may think you are just temporarily tired, overwhelmed, or stressed. It’s important to regularly monitor and assess your emotional state, because you won’t be an effective professional when you are experiencing burnout and you also won’t draw satisfaction and joy from your work. Ideally, management/supervisors will be monitoring staff for signs and indications of burnout, and/or creating systems intended to minimize burnout (such as small caseloads). However, I recommend assessing yourself on a regular basis to be sure you aren't experiencing burnout.

I have learned over the years to monitor my own emotional state to make sure I am far away from reaching burnout levels. I know when to decline clients or refer out, I know when to seek out help or feedback from my colleagues, and I know how to maintain a healthy life/work balance…..but I didn’t start out in this field knowing all of that.

So what are some classic signs of Burnout?

  • Not wanting to go to work, constantly calling in or arriving late
  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed and/or chaotic at work
  • Feeling ill-equipped to perform your job, feeling like you don’t know what you are doing
  • Feeling that you aren’t making a difference….your job doesn’t “matter”
  • Being constantly annoyed or aggravated by your clients/co-workers
  • Productivity decreases…it takes you several minutes to start a task or you find it difficult to stay on task

Knowing yourself and your own preferences or needs as a professional will help you carve out a niche that works for you. Being mismatched in your career is an almost guaranteed way to rapidly slide into burnout. Let’s say I love working with adults in residential settings, but then I take a position working in a K-2 Autism classroom. See what a mismatch that is? I’m not doing what my preference is, I am not working within my skill set, and I may not enjoy my work. I would feel a lack of professional autonomy, or that I am not in control of my career and doing what I want to do. Over time, I may begin to feel that I hate my job……I dislike my clients……or what I do doesn’t matter anyway. These are all classic signs of burnout.

So what can be done to prevent the dreaded Burnout? Lots of things!

  1. Active parental involvement- I will continue to say this over and over on my blog, because it is so critical. When staff are working hard to bring about lasting behavior change in a client, only to have successes derailed or see gains disappear due to no parental carry over, that can be an extremely frustrating feeling. Staff can quickly grow to feel as if they are building sand castles on the shore, if after their session is over no one else is requiring the child to talk, to use the bathroom, to share with their siblings, etc.
  2. Supervision & Support- All ABA professionals need support, including BCBA’s. Having a few colleagues you can go to for venting purposes or to pick their brains is so important. Lack of quality and regular supervision is one of the biggest indicators I see that leads to staff burnout. ABA direct staff absolutely needs an experienced supervisor working with them to make sure they have the support and resources they need to do their job effectively.
  3. Effective training- This is probably the 2nd biggest issue I see that leads to staff burnout. When staff are quickly hired, thrown into the field, and given minimal ongoing supervision, they have no confidence in their abilities/skills. Lack of confidence leads to low job satisfaction, because no one wants to feel like they are bad at their job. Effective training is empowering. It makes people feel better equipped to do their job.
  4. Recognize your area(s) of expertise- This is something I definitely grew to learn over time, but knowing your ideal work setting and ideal client will increase job satisfaction. Not everyone enjoys working with small children. Not everyone enjoys working with high functioning teens. Working within your area of expertise doesn’t just help you to provide the best quality of service; it keeps you enjoying your work.
  5. Low pay- Ask for the level of pay that you need to support yourself, and your family. I see so many new ABA therapists accepting pay rates that are far below what they need, for fear of not being able to find something better. You have to know how to sell yourself in an interview and demonstrate competency in your work, which can often lead management to agree to higher pay rates. ABA therapy can be a physically and emotionally draining job. If on top of that you also can’t pay your bills… that’s a sure recipe for burnout.
  6. Toxic work environment- A toxic or negative work environment will severely impact how much you enjoy your work. I have had past experiences of working with verbally abusive families, or egotistical supervisors, and it really made me dislike my job. I had to be mature enough to realize that I can’t function properly in a toxic environment. If there is consistent dysfunction in your work place, it may be time to leave.
  7. Inconsistent management expectations/client expectations- When the supervisor or family you are working with are constantly demanding more and more of you, yet never satisfied with the work you are putting out, that’s a quick way to slide into burnout. It’s frustrating and defeating to feel that you can’t please someone no matter what you do.
  8. Poor or NO data collection- Some therapists don’t realize this, but consistent data collection can actually serve as positive reinforcement. You may FEEL like the child is not improving, or that what you are doing is not effective but when you can see on a data sheet or graph that small successes are happening, that can be a huge source of motivation. If your client used to scream for 11 minutes and now they scream for 9 minutes, that is progress. Clearly something that you are doing is working, and is having an impact on the problem behavior. I also personally recommend collecting data when dealing with resistant or uninvolved parents. This has helped me immensely in the past. If a parent who used to only respond to my emails 25% of the time now starts responding to my emails 45% of the time that could really make me feel increased job satisfaction. Sometimes little successes are all you have, and they can keep you from feeling defeated.

*Suggested Resources:


  1. Tameika,

    First of all, thank you so much for maintaining this blog. It has assisted me in a time of need that I'll soon explain.

    My name is Troy. I'm 24 and a recent college graduate. I accepted a position as an ABA technician working with one client, an aggressive non-compliant 10 year old boy.

    I have been working this job for about three months now, and although my time with my client has been short, I'm already at the point of burnout and am questioning my ability to conduct myself at the level of professionalism I expect from myself.

    It's a unique situation, as this family recently moved to my area and the ABA company they continue to work with is based states away from where they currently live. Therefore I have little contact with my supervisor and instead mostly rely on coworkers in the area for help, but it isn't enough to help me feel as if I know how to handle my job efficiently.

    I received no formal training. I was given a packet of documents about ABA and the theory behind it instead. While I pride my self-initiative, I still cannot believe that I am allowed to work with this client (who has a history of violent behavior that I have subsequently experienced) by myself.

    In addition to this, I feel that my work environment is toxic in that my clients mother (single parent household, recently divorced) treats myself and my coworkers like glorified babysitters. For example, she constantly asks us to come in hours before our shift, will go out at night and not return until well after our shifts were supposed to end...she's just not providing a conducive environment for ABA success.

    My employer has gone back on initial agreements as well. The weekends that were allegedly optional are not at all.

    Needless to say, I feel overwhelmed and it has brought me to the point in which I'm questioning my capabilities. It's obvious that this company needed someone quickly, but in their haphazard employing they have undermined their ability to provide foundational training needed for success and thus have likey caused more harm than good.

    As a newcomer to this line of work, I am obviously feeling overwhelmed and unsure of myself. I wanted to get your opinion on my current work environment and gain your insight as to its effectiveness. I truly fear that my time spent with my client is doing more harm than good, and I am also paying a price as well. I've been bitten, punched, headbutted, spit at and have had things thrown at me. Would you put someone with the same amount of training that I've had in this environment? It all feels very unfair to both myself and my client.

    Thank you so much for your time, for this blog, and for your input.


  2. Hi Troy,

    Thank you for your kind words! :-)
    I am glad the blog, and specifically this post on burnout, are helping you. Burnout happens to the best of us, and is not necessarily a reflection of incompetency. So don't beat yourself up if you are feeling down, discouraged, or depressed in your current position. Staff who lack proper support and oversight OFTEN feel this way.

    I don't know if you have seen it, but I would recommend my "Selecting an ABA Employer" post to you. Its about evaluating an employer to see if its a quality company/agency or not....super important as a staff person in this field. I think that post will answer most of your questions. I am sorry you are in such an uncomfortable and dissatisfying position that it sounds like you were not prepared for. Please don't think that is normal for an ABA position, because it is not. That is not ok. You need proper training and guidance, both initially and on an ongoing basis. This is what you deserve, and what the client deserves.

    My advice would be to speak up and start asking the questions you are already pondering, "where is your training", "why don't you have more support", "who is going to help you develop your skillset"?
    I have been in your shoes as a young ABA therapist and looking back on it, I wish I had been more vocal and assertive when I knew I wasn't being treated fairly as an employee.

    Good luck to you!


  3. Hi Tameika.

    I am a 22 year old student on a 2 year M.Sc. programme in ABA. I have been working as an independent practitioner for about 9 months. At first it was great and I was enjoying the experience, but I have started working with a kid about 4 months ago and i'm really starting to question whether or not I have experienced burnout already.

    I am working with a 4 year old verbal kid, who has very bad tantrums and challenging behaviours in the form of biting, pinching and slapping. I have tried my best to reduce these behaviours by completing a functional assessment, creating visuals and not providing attention when this is the function underlying the occurrence.

    I have trained the parents on the use of all of the above, and have asked in my absence to record A-B-C- data which I have thoroughly explained to them, however I am seeing no progress.

    The parents have younger children and seem to be too busy to carry out what I suggest, and consequently provide reinforcement/attention/the tangible whatever it is that is the cause of the tantrum at the time.

    It is extremely frustrating because despite the fact I know it is difficult, I feel anything I suggest or attempt to implement is falling on deaf ears, and his behaviour will never improve if they continue down this track.

    I am considering giving it another 2 or 3 weeks and if I see no improvement in their efforts, giving my months notice.

    I'm just wondering if you've ever had a similar situation and how you have dealt with it? I've informed my BCBA and she has discussed this all with them but it seems they just do not care.

    Thanks a million for any advice in advance.

    1. Hi there!

      I am sorry to hear that you are considering giving notice and leaving the position. That makes me wonder if there is more going on than just challenging behavior? Do you feel heard and valued as a team member? I have found that staff who feel supported are less likely to hit a point of burnout. Stress or fatigue yes, but not burnout.

      You mention you are working under a BCBA, which is great. My first advice would be to discuss all of this with your BCBA...again. I know you mentioned you already did, but it does not sound like any resolution happened. I suggest discussing this with the BCBA again, until a point of mutual resolution is reached.
      Voice your concerns and that you are nearing a point of leaving the case, I think (if I were your BCBA) that very clearly communicates how urgent this issue is.

      I also suggest reading this post:

      From what you describe of the parents, I think you may also have an issue with lack of parent buy in. Which is something the BCBA needs to address.

      Good luck!


Copyright T. Meadows 2011. All original content on this blog is protected by copyright. Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top