Coping and Avoiding BCBA Burnout in ABA

Burnout has been a buzzword in the ABA community for some time now. During the pandemic, it really came to light that large numbers of professionals in human services fields were experiencing overwhelming burnout – a state of mental and/or emotional exhaustion due to stressors and demands, in this case, from work. The field of Applied Behavior Analysis was one of these. Burnout occurs across all positions within the field of ABA, but here I will address BCBA burnout, as that is where I have the most personal experience.

BCBAs are at risk for developing burnout for lots of reasons. Due to the nature of the field, BCBAs are often relied upon to be available all day – in some cases from 8am-8pm and even on weekends. They are expected to keep up with large caseloads, work with challenging clients, meet the needs of families, train staff on the fly, follow stringent insurance requirements, encounter sometimes dangerous workplace conditions, meet billable hours, and maintain pristine documentation – all while balancing their own personal lives. It is not a job you can simply leave at work; the responsibilities and emotional effects often come home with you.

The very same things that draw many of us into the field are what make us vulnerable to experiencing burnout: a passion for helping others and a selfless nature. These are also the very things that keep many of us in the field despite experiencing burnout. The problem with this was that until recently, burnout was not widely talked about. It was oftentimes even considered taboo to discuss within the context of the work we do. As a result, we trudged through, working long days, accepting unmanageable caseloads, taking calls from parents at 9pm, checking our email at midnight because that was what you were supposed to do. Allowing the lines between work and life to blur into near nonexistence. 

BCBAs have critical, life changing jobs, and often put the needs of others before their own. Thoughts such as these often dominate our experience at work:

  •  “If I don’t help this family, who will?” 
  • “If I don’t stay up late and complete this treatment plan, my client’s insurance coverage might lapse.”
  • “If I don’t answer my behavior therapist’s call at 9pm, she might quit and then this client won’t have staff for a month.”
  • “If I don’t take this client, they will go without services.”
  • “I can’t say no to my boss.”
  • “If I don’t spend my own money on materials, my client will go without.”
  • “Even though I don’t feel well, if I don’t go into work today, the session will be a disaster.”

How many of these resonate with you?

It can be challenging to look beyond those thoughts, but I cannot stress enough how important it is to avoid burnout as a BCBA. We are at a pivotal time in our field where behavior analysts are adjusting their practice to be more compassionate and client-centered. However, one piece of this puzzle is to ensure that the BCBAs themselves are happy, healthy, and in a good headspace so that they can do their best work and make the biggest impacts on the lives of clients and families.

Thankfully, with this recent attention on burnout and the corresponding paradigm shift, many organizations are addressing burnout by 1, normalizing talking about burnout and 2, providing their employees with tools to help overcome it. With that being said, ultimately the responsibility remains with each individual BCBA to avoid burnout. A lot of the tools provided by companies can really only serve as a bandaid if not utilized properly. 

How can we beat burnout?

First, BCBAs must find workplaces that align with their own personal values. They should work for supervisors who respect them as human beings with needs, who listen to them, and provide them with a community in which they are supported in discussing challenges, learning, and growing.

Work should be a place where individuals feel heard and respected, where it is safe to say no or ask for help if you feel like a task or responsibility is beyond what you can manage. The workspace should be somewhere that people contact reinforcement consistently. Finally, just as we encourage with our clients, BCBAs should be able to ask for a break – whether that means asking for a mental health day to recoup from a challenging week, or to feel like they can take a sick day without guilt or fear that the world will crumble without them. BCBAs should feel safe to decline a new client or project if their plate is already full.

Importantly, BCBAs should take care of their physical, emotional, and mental health outside of work – this looks different for everyone but figuring out what works best for you is critical. BCBAs must create clear boundaries for themselves before burnout occurs, and they should not feel guilty for enforcing them. If something isn’t working, you should feel safe to express that and change it. 

In my opinion, possibly the most important of all is that BCBAs should be checking in with themselves regularly on three things: 

  1. Is my work genuinely bringing me joy? 
  2. Do I have ample time and energy to enjoy my life outside of work?
  3. Do I have time to rest?

If at any time the answer to any of these is no – it is time to assess why, and to determine what changes can be made to remedy the situation. This may be the perfect time to apply some principles of the science of behavior on ourselves!

Amanda L. Kelly M.S.Ed. BCBA, LABA
Clinical Customer Success Consultant