Guest Post by:

Lindsey Clarke, MS, ATC, CMT
Athletic Trainer
MUSC Health Sports Medicine

“You work in athletics?  Awesome…that’s so cool!”

This is often the response I get when people learn that I am a Certified Athletic Trainer(ATC). It’s an understandable reaction, as most of the population will only ever see the glitz and glory of the bright lights, sidelines, and athletes from the TV screen or stands. It seems very exciting from those seats, but what they don’t see is the time spent in the training room doing treatments long before and cleaning up after the event has ended, packing sideline kits and bags for travel, arranging appointments, or prepping both lunch and dinner for the day as you’ll most likely be eating those meals on a bus, sideline or in your office while updating your athletes’ files. While being an ATC is immensely gratifying, it can also be a source of great stress. We are expected to be selfless, often putting other’s needs first, work long hours over nights and weekends, and perform at high levels to help our athletes recover and return to play. While all these demands are inherent to the job, these expectations can result in work-related stress. It is difficult to control work-related demands in any profession, but especially so with the constant flux of working in athletics; the game was rescheduled, practice ran later than anticipated, weather delays…the list goes on and on. In addition to scheduling, there is the ever-present threat of injury or emergency. While most of the time it may seem we are standing around observing, we are constantly scanning and taking note of hits to the head, mis-steps, and collisions. More often than not, the ATC is taping, evaluating and responding to manageable injuries, but sudden cardiac arrest, gross trauma or spinal injury are very real possibilities that are always at the back of our minds. The uncertainty of managing an ever-changing schedule, in addition to the emotional drain of providing care, can leave the ATC little time, opportunity or inclination for a life outside of their job.

To provide the appropriate care, an ATC’s training includes primarily academic and practical skills; unfortunately, the ATC does not commonly receive sufficient preparation for the emotional reality of their responsibilities and its impact on their personal functioning and self-fulfillment. If not managed properly over time, these constant stressors can create feelings of apathy, depression, chronic exhaustion, depersonalization towards your athletes, and reduced accomplishment towards one’s work or ineffectiveness in one’s role/performance.

This culmination of stressors and the resulting inability to effectively deal with them can lead to burnout; a very real psychological health concern among professionals working within dynamic, fast-paced environments. According to Merriam-Webster, burnout can be defined in a number of ways, but it all boils down to the exhaustion of physical and/or emotional strength and motivation; it is very common amongst service-related professions such as teachers, public servants, and health care providers. Occupational burnout is typically measured using the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI); one of the most commonly used tools to assess burnout in human service professions. In 2008, the Athletic Training Burnout Inventory(ATBI) was created to examine specific characteristics within the profession such as: emotional exhaustion & depersonalization, administrative responsibility, time commitment, and organizational support.

There are three hallmarks of burnout:

  • Overwhelming emotional and physical exhaustion from being overextended; the ATC feels drained, “used up”, barely able to face another day, practice, game or athlete presenting with a problem.
  • Reduced personal accomplishments at work; feelings of frustration, anger, cynicism, and inadequacy can lead to a sense of failure or ineffectiveness in helping their athletes or enhancing their work circumstances
  • Depersonalized attitude toward others; the ATC may adopt a callous or emotionally detached response to their athletes and co-workers.

Certainly, stress is felt differently for each individual, but this sense of burnout, caused by the prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job, can impair social and personal functioning. This may cause the ATC to feel less than professional with these negative feelings, and may begin to question their ability and commitment to their profession, leading some to actually leave athletic training to pursue other careers. The specter of mental health disorders is constantly lurking in the background whenever the dynamic of burnout is present. Being a health care provider does not provide immunity from developing a mental health disorder. Rather, their very responsibilities may be putting them at a higher risk if they are unable to effectively deal with the inherent stressors that lead to burnout in the first place; this may put the ATC at risk for developing a mental health disorder, or exacerbating a present mental health disorder that is under control.

An ATC is exposed to stressful events on a daily basis. Knowing how to recognize how stress might affect you, and learning effective stress prevention and management strategies is extremely important. Below are a few preventative measures on how an ATC can help prevent and avoid burnout, and/or the possibly of developing a psychological disorder.

  • Workout, meditate or practice yoga on a regular basis.
  • Practice good nutrition. Be sure to eat; don’t skip meals. Be well hydrated.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Don’t abuse alcohol or drugs.
  • Even if you are busy, try to establish a daily routine; disruptions of routine may cause stress.
  • Take time for yourself; even if for a short period of time, make time for a hobby or period of relaxation daily. Spend quality time with friends and/or family as they are your greatest support.
  • Try not to dwell on fleeting negative emotions or experiences. Doing so gives them momentum to negatively take over your day. It is OK to have a bad moment or day, but concentrate of moving forward to the next day or opportunity to make something positive happen.
  • Be candid with your departmental manager or supervisor. They know you work long and hard. When possible, they may be able to help arrange your schedule, by scheduling mornings and days off, working remotely for administrative work or reduced work hours for you during a less competitive season or on team off-days.

Talk to others you trust about your feelings in a safe and productive way. Know your resources. If an ATC feels the signs and symptoms of burnout or a mental health disorder, seek professional assistance through your place of employment. A good resource for learning about mental health and wellness, and steps to address stress to prevent mental health disorders can be found at Mental Health America. Knowing your limitations and acknowledging when you are struggling will not only make you a better healthcare provider, but it will set both you and your athletes up for long-term success.