By: Kathleen Ashton, PhD, OPA President
Psychology is a stressful job, and psychologists are not immune to the effects of stress, mental health issues, behavior and addiction issues. This month, I’ve asked myself, how do I take care of myself as a psychologist? How do we take care of each other as a profession? How can OPA help psychologists to recognize when they or a colleague is impaired?
Psychologists, as professionals, may have particular vulnerabilities (Saakvitne 2014). It is important for us to be self-aware, acknowledge the stresses inherent in our jobs, and maintain self-care strategies or beyond to cope with the stresses. Pope (1994) describes “a conspiracy of silence” around occupational stress for psychologists that is important to overcome. Each of us as a psychologist may have unique vulnerabilities, be it a trauma history, current life stresses (divorce, marriage, bereavement, etc.), or physical/psychological issues. In addition, our work as psychologists is often stressful through increasing demands, decreasing financial reward, cultural devaluation of our work, the emotional toll of empathy with our patients and need for confidentiality. Some psychologists may work in systems that do not value psychology highly, where others may be prone to stress because of isolation and lack of opportunity to communicate with colleagues about work issues.
APA’s Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance notes a “Stress-Distress-Impairment” continuum. We all encounter stress which can lead to distress if we are unable to manage the stressor. Impairment occurs when distress affects our ability to professionally function. Impaired professionals may engage in improper behavior, a “slippery slope.” Warning signs of occupational stress include loss of pleasure in work, depression, anxiety, poor concentration, substance abuse or other compulsive behaviors, clinical errors, isolation from colleagues, workaholism, intrusive thoughts about work issues, cynicism, irritability/impatience, loss of objectivity or suicidal thoughts.
What are some of the steps to avoid occupational stress or burnout?
What are some options if you are worried about yourself or a colleague’s impairment?
State law and established ethical standards require psychologists to recognize when one’s objectivity or competency may be impaired, and psychologists also bear an ethical responsibility to intervene when a fellow psychologist is thought to be impaired. Impairment, in this context, refers to “…impairment of ability to practice according to acceptable and prevailing standards of care.” (Ohio Administrative Code)
OPA provides a Colleauge Assistance Program (OPA-CAP) to help psychologists struggling with impairment. “The mission of the OPA-CAP is to provide Ohio psychologists and OPA members with assistance in accessing services to restore professional functioning and to protect client welfare. OPA-CAP aims to prevent impairment by providing relevant education and to restore professional functioning by providing referrals for assessment and treatment. The OPA-CAP program is based on principles of self-care, prevention, and early intervention. We seek to create a climate which normalizes self-care and help seeking behavior. In doing so the OPA-CAP program hopes to help stressed/distressed psychologists from becoming impaired, and also to link with providers those psychologists who are in need of their own treatment.”
The Ohio Board of Psychology supports OPA-CAP principles of self care, prevention and early intervention. The Board further supports “safe passage” for those providers who contact OPA-CAP before their distress has escalated to the point of impairment, resulting in improper behavior.
American Psychological Association (1992). Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct.
O’Connor, M.F. (2001). On the etiology and effective management of professional distress and impairment among psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32 (4), 345-350.
Ohio Administrative Code, 13 && 4731-15 & 4731-16 (Banks and Baldwin, 1993).
Pope, K.S. (1994, August). What therapists don’t talk about and why. Paper presented at the Division 12 award ceremony for “Distinguished Professional Contribution to Clinical Psychology” award, annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Los Angeles.
Ukens, C. (1995). The tragic truth. Drug Topics, 139, 66-74.
VandenBos, G.R. and Duthie, R.F. (1986). Confronting and supporting colleagues in distress. Professionals in Distress, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 211-232.
Intervening With an Impaired Colleague
By Michael F. O’Connor, Ph.D., with the assistance of the members of the APA Board of Professional Affairs Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance.
The Stress-Distress-Impairment Continuum for Psychologists
by the Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance
Occupational Vulnerability for Psychologists
This document was prepared by Karen Saakvitne, Ph.D., and the members of the Board of Professional Affairs Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance (ACCA).
Professional Health and Well-being for Psychologists by the Board of Professional Affairs’ Advisory Committee on Colleague Assistance