Prevent Therapist Burnout: Take a Career Break By Fran Wickner, Ph.D., MFT

September 10, 2012 3:06 PM | Admin EBCAMFT

As a psychotherapist in private practice since 1984, one of my specialties is helping clients manage stress in their lives. Those of us in the helping professions are especially susceptible to stress. This article is about a relatively new way to help with stress and work burnout: taking a career break.

For the past few years I was entertaining the idea of taking what I was calling “an adult gap year”. I found many articles on high school/college aged teens/young adults taking a gap year, but nothing on adults doing this. Then I read an article in the New York Times on Meet Plan Go and Sherry Ott, introducing me to the term I had been looking for: “career break”. I attended the conference they were having in San Francisco in October 2011 and took my career break the following spring.

A career break is simply time away from your job. There is no “right” way to take a career break, only that if it is less than a month it’s more of a vacation. The word sabbatical is often used and is the same concept.

There are many benefits to taking a career break and traveling. For a profession like ours most reasons are obvious such as returning from traveling refreshed, replenished, gaining new perspectives and having time to not think about your clients. People who take career breaks often return with a more positive outlook on their job and life in general.

But there are other benefits as well that have been substantiated through research.

Psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University published an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychologythat says distance can make you more creative. The implications of his research show that traveling to faraway places and communicating with people dissimilar to us can help increase creativity and lead to considering novel alternatives.

A study from the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago also supported the research that living abroad boosts creativity. This study showed that the experience of another culture endows us with a valuable open-mindedness, making it easier to realize that a single thing can have multiple meanings. People who travel are more willing to realize that there are different ways of interpreting the world.

Jia’s work and the study at Kellogg showed that traveling not only helps your creativity but also improves your problem solving abilities, skills that are imperative in our field.

If you do decide take a career break, be prepared for internal and external blocks. Society’s norm is to work until you get old (or sick) before you can take your break, so when deciding to take a career break, encountering mental and social hurdles are common. You will have to explain yourself to family and friends, because right now taking a break when you are healthy and younger than retirement age is the exception. Sometimes using the word “sabbatical”, a term people know, will help explain what you are doing, but you will still find many family and friends doubting your decision.

Maybe you have told yourself this same narrative, i.e. I will work and work until I retire. But in our field, there usually isn’t a set age to retire, and if you are in private practice, no one is “retiring” you. Just like with any big change in your life, if you take all this in and tell yourself “I can’t do this”, you never will.

Logistically, therapists often are worried about what will happen to their clients. Those in private practice might also be worried what will happen to their business. You need to treat this the way you do other planned (or unplanned) absences such as maternity leave, caring for a sick family member or leaving your agency job. Regarding your clients, you give adequate notice, find back-ups when needed and arrange for a return date. As with other absences, you share as much or as little as you want based on your theoretical perspective and the particular client’s needs. As far as your business, you need a plan to have it back up and running upon your return. Before leaving could be a good time to use a practice building consultant so you can return to a thriving practice.

Future articles will give specifics on how to therapists can plan for a career break including dispelling the myths of why you can’t do it (too expensive, it will ruin my career, I can’t go with my family, I can’t go alone, it’s too dangerous, this isn’t the right time, etc.), practical planning tips and how to manage your private practice or job before and after your career break.

Thousands of people are now taking career breaks. It is possible. You will return with new motivation and renewed energy for the wonderful work we do. Consider taking a career break because you deserve it. And the best reason isn’t deep or clinical or psychological or particularly introspective; do it because it will add to your happiness.


Jai, Lile, Hirt, Edward & Karpen, Samuel. Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 45(5), September 2009, 1127-1131.

Lehrer, Jonah. Why We Travel. The Observer. (3/14/10).

Maddux, William W. & Galinsky, Adam D. Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 96(5), May 2009, 1047-1061.

Stellin, Susan. Practical Traveler: Making the Dream Trip a Reality. New York Times. (10/17/10).

ON-LINE CAREER BREAK RESOURCES (extensive links, meetings, tools for taking a career break) (Information about the 10/16/12 S.F. conference) (practice building workshops, consultations and on-line e-books on the business side of your practice.)

Fran Wickner, Ph.D., MFT has been a licensed MFT since 1983. She has a private practice in Albany, CA, serving individuals, couples, families and teens. For over 25 years Dr. Wickner has also been helping clinicians grow their private practice both with and without managed care. Her website, has information about her practice and her consulting business including practice building workshops, consultations and downloadable practice building packets.

On October 16, 2012, Dr. Wickner will be a speaker at the MEET PLAN GO! Conference in San Francisco, CA .

You can contact her at or 510-527-4011.


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