Every year, the Hogg Foundation gives the Frances Fowler Wallace Memorial Award for Mental Health Dissertation Research to eligible doctoral candidates at institutions of higher education in Texas. Awardees receive a scholarship to help cover research-related expenses.
One of our 2020 recipients is Mary Hannah Key. Mary is a PhD Candidate in Family Therapy at Texas Woman’s University and is in the process of completing her dissertation. She works as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate at a private practice in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We talked with Mary about her latest research.
Your project explores current burnout symptoms of marriage and family therapists and how the experience of burnout impacts their ability to take care of themselves, access sources of support, and maintain clinical efficacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. What led you to take a professional interest in this topic, and what questions are you trying to answer with this research?
Over the past few years, I have worked as a licensed marriage and family therapist associate in a group practice setting which primarily serves couples in the Dallas, Texas metroplex while also attending school full-time to finish my doctoral degree. Within this timeframe, I also become a wife and new mother. I have experienced both personal and professional feelings of heightened stress and anxiety, symptoms of burnout as a therapist, a general lack of practicing good self-care, and difficulty in utilizing dependable support systems. Add a stressful year of the pandemic to that and I felt like a tired, over-worked hot mess most days. I quickly realized that I was not alone in these feelings, as it became more apparent to me that there are many in the helping professions that also struggle with these parts of their lives. I began this study with the perspective that managing a healthy work-life balance as a marriage and family therapist is often difficult, as I believe the awareness and recognition of burnout symptoms and engaging in self-care and effective dependence of others is crucial to our well-being in this profession.
“I have experienced both personal and professional feelings of heightened stress and anxiety, symptoms of burnout as a therapist, a general lack of practicing good self-care, and difficulty in utilizing dependable support systems. Add a stressful year of the pandemic to that and I felt like a tired, over-worked hot mess most days.”
The purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between burnout symptoms and the utilization of self-care practices and awareness of adult attachment style among practicing marriage and family therapists. The study is significant because if more knowledge is associated with the beneficial use of attachment style awareness and meaningful practices of self-care, marriage and family therapists may be more equipped in recognizing their own personal limitations and clinical blind spots to approach their work with better care and intentionality.
How do you think your research methods and approach will help you answer the questions you’re posing?
Marriage and family therapists are often inadequately represented in the current literature regarding associations among adult attachment style, the practice of self-care, and burnout syndrome. The purpose of a convergent mixed methods study like mine is to help build knowledge and awareness that will support systemic therapists’ ability to effectively cope with the experience of burnout in a way that fosters resiliency and growth. Having a greater understanding of the symptoms of burnout and the proper means for taking care of one’s self in meaningful ways would allow for therapists to approach their clinical work with better care and intentionality. By engaging dependable support systems, fostering a sense of deeper self-awareness of attachment style, and routinely practicing self-care, therapists’ health and wellness can also be nurtured.
What, from your perspective, is the biggest area of need — or the greatest opportunity — related to this topic? In other words, how could we really move the needle on this front?
With a level of awareness about their attachment style, marriage and family therapists would also be able to assist in helping support the well-being of other clinicians in the field of mental health that may be suffering from symptoms of burnout. Normalizing the experience of burnout as something that many marriage and family therapists will likely experience at some point in their personal and professional lives may help to allow practicing therapists feel comfortable and confident in assessing their own level of burnout throughout their career. As a result, this may aid in them taking the necessary steps that are needed in decreasing burnout levels for themselves and in others, as well as protecting their work-life balance.
Practicing marriage and family therapists may also benefit from this study by considering how they use attachment style awareness in their approach to clinical practice and self-care to maintain work-life balance. The field of marriage and family therapy would benefit by helping graduate family therapy training programs and educators to identify how to best educate therapist interns about the risks of burnout and the importance of engaging in self-care practices.
Can you suggest a few readings/resources for those who are interested in learning more about this topic?
- Behavior Elevation Academy: Blog on Professional Burnout
- Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey: Developer Website on Burnout
- Fraley, R. C. (2013, February 28). Information on the experiences in close relationships-revised (ECR-R) adult attachment questionnaire.