Therapists at UPMC, Pittsburgh Mercy are burned out and quitting. What does it mean for patient care?

After months of crying all the time, barely being able to stay awake and regularly skipping lunch to get her work done, Ashley knew she needed to leave her job as a mental health therapist in UPMC’s network.

Ashley worked for the healthcare giant for several years. As a therapist most recently focused on women’s mental health, she found her work deeply fulfilling.

But when the pandemic created more demand for mental health services, Ashley’s schedule became unmanageable. Before the pandemic, the no-show rate for appointments was high, which providers like UPMC factored into scheduling requirements. But once telehealth became widely available, the no-show rate dropped, and Ashley said she began seeing seven patients per day, rather than her usual four to six. 

Outpatient therapists typically spend about an hour with each patient, helping them work through issues such as anxiety or depression. Mandatory meetings no longer counted toward therapists’ productivity quota, a change management made during the pandemic, according to Ashley and two other therapists. Ashley would sometimes have to type patient notes while with a different patient, she said, just to not fall behind. UPMC did not respond to questions about the change in the meeting policy.

The stress depleted Ashley’s own mental health and her ability to provide quality care. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” Ashley said. She left for a job in private practice in the spring. “I was heartbroken when I had to leave,” she said. “It almost was a sense of UPMC came in and cracked down.”

Heavy workloads, high productivity standards and low pay are causing many therapists to leave community mental health centers like UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and Pittsburgh Mercy Behavioral Health, according to current and former employees. PublicSource agreed to withhold the names of sources due to fears about termination or concerns that speaking out after leaving could harm them professionally.  

As a result, the therapists say some patients are waiting longer for appointments. The therapists left behind have to take on the extra workload, and they’re concerned that the quality of care has declined. The problem is cyclical: The more therapists that leave, the worse the conditions get for the ones who remain, prompting many to seek jobs elsewhere.

Mental health therapists in UPMC’s networks are leaving, citing burnout from heavy workloads in the pandemic. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

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