As travelers, we are a rare species of clinicians. Most of us might profess that, to some degree, we did so because we crave freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom from the woes of office drama, and most importantly, freedom to reclaim more of our time. Then, we committed to this lifestyle because we embraced the ability to journey anywhere in the country to do what we do best. And, rightfully so, we feel extremely fortunate and proud of ourselves for taking that step time and time again. That is, until, one day we’re just not happy doing it at all.
Whether you’ve completed your first or your tenth travel assignment, there’s a moment of clarity in which you have already realized, or eventually will realize, the importance of managing your expectations about how “fun” or “easy” being a travel therapist is. As golden as it may seem to others from the outside looking in, most of us will happily agree that being a travel therapist is equally as interesting as it is difficult. For some, it’s a hard position to adjust to because of feeling ill-equipped with the right tools, support, or personality for it. On the flip side, even after traveling for a long time, it can still be a hard lifestyle to maintain if rigorous personal and professional self-care practices aren’t in place before, during, and after every contract. Furthermore, if we’re not careful, we can fall victim to experiencing burnout. But not just one type of burnout. Oh, no— as travel therapists we are far more likely to experience two distinct types: provider burnout and travel burnout.
What is Burnout?
So, what is burnout? In the American Journal of Occupational Therapy (AJOT) article on identifying and preventing burnout, Donna Costa (2018) explains the phenomenon as “a gap between expectations and rewards” and “a disparity of effort versus recovery.” Costa (2018) also explains that some strong predictors of burnout include “an intrusion of work-life into home life and feelings of being ineffective.” That being said, burnout is not to be confused with mental health illnesses such as depression or a myriad of anxiety disorders. Burnout symptoms often present as extreme exhaustion, feeling down, and overall reduced work performance. However, while these symptoms can be rectified if caught early on, they can also be prevented altogether.
The fact of the matter is that as travel therapists we are deemed as contractors. And as such we typically experience strenuous workloads and, what often feels like, double the productivity expectations. This is usually because we are A) covering severely short-staffed locations and B) might be expected to immediately and tactfully handle all the garbage fires thrown at us starting on contract day number one. By no means is this a typical experience for all travel therapists or for all contracts. This just goes to show that sometimes while the travel therapy lifestyle can be sweet, it can also be sour. After all, we aren’t exactly hired to be coddled. Very often, the key to finessing these situations lies in exercising the ability to mindfully manage personal responses and finding productive ways to handle internal stress levels both in or out of work.
Tips to Avoid Burnout
In no particulate order, here’s a shortlist of tips any of my fellow travel clinicians can incorporate into their travel routine to manage or minimize both travel and provider burnout. The following advice is also based on research conducted by the National Institute of Health (NIH) that highlights the top culprits of burnout. Best of all, each of these tips can be applied by any rehab clinician (OTs, SLPs, PTs, nurses, and any other allied health professional) in any practice setting.
1. Social Media
Let’s be clear. Social media does not only constitute the Big 5 (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat). The social media I’m referring to here is the work email. As healthcare professionals, we’re all familiar with this platform because we use it to remain plugged in with our colleagues on the daily. But emails are pervasive. And this is especially true for those of us who work in a school or home health setting. While work emails may seem harmless, it’s a deadly combination if you have a strong work ethic and a natural desire to please others, and you also happen work with people who have nonexistent time management skills and poor work-life balance.
If you are not doing so already, then I urge you to start enforcing strict business hours for checking and responding to work emails. To start, try a Monday to Friday from 8 AM-4 PM schedule. Think about it. Responding to emails is work. And as contractors, we usually don’t get paid for that type of work. So, if you find yourself consistently doing work when you’re supposed to be relaxing or having fun, you’ll quickly tire yourself out. Why? Because you never unplugged yourself in the first place!
I’d like you to take a minute to reflect on the freedom you have in your current position and your “WHY” for becoming a travel therapist. While it is possible that not everyone likes to take full advantage of the travel part of being a travel therapist (that would be an even rarer species of travel therapist), I’m sure the majority of us prefer to take as much advantage of it as we can. This includes meeting new people, trying new activities, and exploring cultures different from those we experience at home— wherever home may be.
With that in mind, if you became a travel therapist to expand your horizons and explore, but you have a difficult time prioritizing that desire, then over time it’s likely you’ll start to embrace feeling like all you do is move from place to place, work hard, and have nothing to show for it. Fun is subjective and entirely up to you. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share that you should make sure to prioritize exploring your new temporary home in ways that suit you and find alternative ways to destress outside of work in order to remain grounded.
3. Professional Growth
Some of us might have already entered this travel game with a plan for our preferred practice settings. But there are those of us who are open to any and all types of professional opportunities, letting the wind blow us where it may. One thing to keep in mind, outside of the yearly hustle for Continuing Education Units (CEUs), is to also give some rank to your own professional development, and on a more personal level, too. Like, did you manage to take that wound care course you’ve been dreaming of but keep putting off- or, nah?
In this lifestyle, it’s very easy for us to get caught up in just living life when we often move from place to place, wondering and planning for the next adventure. However, it’s just as important to maintain that same level of vigilance with setting personal-professional development goals. And that’s to continue stoking the fire that made us enjoy getting into our profession in the first place so that we’re pumped to stay. That way, not only are you motivated to do and to be better for yourself, but to also do and to be better for your patients as well.
4. Save Money
While many of us are licensed in several states and have little trouble finding work, sometimes we can and do fall on hard times. We’ve all been there. A job doesn’t open up around the times we need it to, or a contract gets cut too short way too soon. And sure, while one huge perk to being a travel therapist is that we make more money than the clinician in a permanent position, there are still inherent risks associated with our position. That being said, saving money should be priority #1 for each of us. I think many of us overlook this essential tip on our quest for travel clout. While this issue can be founded on our own personal ethics surrounding money, some of us are blessed to have recruiters that try to look out for us in this regard. But saving money is definitely one of those things each of us should be mindful of and managing well ourselves.
Here’s a simple equation: work stress + personal stress + financial stress = a vicious cycle of feeling like there’s never enough money. By remaining proactive about saving for emergencies as travel clinicians, we can greatly decrease the number of factors that contribute to provider and travel burnout. My personal favorite reason for saving money is so that I’m able to plan longer vacations. This way I’m not working hard all throughout the year. Thus, I can recharge myself often and limit feeling sick of working not because I want to but because I have to.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Say Yes or No
It’s the simplest and most powerful tip I can offer, but it happens to be one of the hardest to do. Partially, because everyone’s ability to say yes or no comes down to their ability to create and maintain boundaries. I think that boundaries are highly underrated and there’s not enough of them. But as people who extend, and maybe even overextend ourselves to help others, I fear that one of the hardest things we struggle with, both personally and professionally, is knowing not only when to say no, but also when to say yes. So, while this tip definitely isn’t as cut and dry, I’d like us to consider how we determine the yes’s and the no’s in our lives. Getting a little decisive about telling not just our colleagues, but some of our patients and the people in our personal lives “yes” or “no”, can be a great ruler for measuring how quickly we experience burnout.
“Yes, I will try that new job in that place I didn’t even know existed” and “No, I won’t take on that new patient/student because they are inappropriate for treatment” can go a mighty long way in maintaining our sense of autonomy over our personal and professional decisions. It’s also a good foundation to have for creating a safe, healthy space to remain capable of doing your best work while living your best life.
Being a travel therapist has been one of the biggest yes-es I have ever gambled with myself on and I haven’t regretted it since. It can be hard to determine if I’ll ever get tired of traveling, but I feel that it’s always better to burn strong than to burnout. To all of you reading this who have made it to the end, I hope that there were a few gems you were able to take away in order to make your experiences as a travel provider shine bright. And if you happen to already be doing all of these things, then here’s to more experiences and continued success on the road!
Costa, D. (2018). Better Days at Work: Identifying, Preventing Burnout in Occupational Therapy Practice. American Journal of Occupational Therapy . Retrieved from https://www.aota.org/Publications-News/otp/Archive/2018/Better-Days-Work-Identifying-Preventing-Burnout.aspx
Author: Kenita Williams is a rehabilitation (skilled nursing facility) and pediatric school-based Occupational Therapist (OT) who is involved in educating other persons of color about the beauty of traveling and OT. She travels solo and can be found making memes about the #ABCsofTravelOT on Instagram.
Published December 16, 2019