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What Is Counselor Burnout and How Can You Avoid It?

10 Apr
Avoid Counselor Burnout

The realities of on-the-job stressors are present in almost every occupation, which means the signs of job burnout are equally present. They can have a significant impact on how well mental health professionals are able to do their jobs. However, for health care professionals, on-the-job performance is directly related to health outcomes for their patients, and diminished or impaired performance is a considerable liability. Counselors in particular need to be aware of their reaction to on-the-job stress and the associated impacts of counselor burnout.

Years of counseling research catalogs the symptoms, causes and potential remedies for burnout. It is a concept all practitioners—in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Military and Veterans Counseling and School Counseling—need to be aware of if they are to provide consistent, quality services to their clients. Further, counselors have an imperative to take appropriate care of themselves to ensure their own mental well being and to model wellness for their clients.

What is job burnout?

The word burnout is commonly associated with a number of terms that elicit feelings of despair such as exhaustion, helplessness and frustration. To better understand how to prevent or remedy counselor burnout, professionals need to know what it is and how it happens. A variety of definitions for burnout have been offered by different authors. The first author to coin the term was a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger who used it to refer to “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Burnout has also been characterized by Maslach and Johnson as, “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of clients, and lack of feelings of personal accomplishment.” In basic terms, counselor burnout is the accompanying loss of motivation and meaning that is associated with the emotional, mental and physical fatigue that comes from doing therapy.

If thought of as a type of fatigue that comes from on-the-job stress, the question of how to avoid job burnout in the first place arises. The high levels of empathetic demand and frequent exposure to clients’ trauma create perfect conditions for compassion fatigue or emotional exhaustion. Stressful work environments and varying levels of accomplishment and support also contribute to professional burnout. New counselors do well to make themselves aware of these hazards and develop a healthy understanding of how they might be susceptible and prepared to deal with them. Armed with this awareness and a number of strategies for safeguarding against these risks, professionals can do more to take better care of themselves and prevent succumbing to burnout.

What causes burnout?

The individual characteristics that often attract professionals to the counseling field and make them well suited for the job are the same characteristics that make them vulnerable to counselor burnout. Individuals who are emotionally responsive, empathetic and compassionate are often equipped to be strong clinicians, but they are also regularly exposed to the pain experienced by their clients. Secondary (or vicarious) traumatic stress results when clinicians frequently hear about traumatic events from the lives of their clients that strains the empathetic response natural for helpers. Given the nature of the work mental health professionals do, this type of stress, also known as compassion fatigue, has become a significant topic in counselor burnout research.

Unfortunately, a number of structural work conditions can also contribute to the risk of burnout. Organizational bureaucracy, large demanding case loads and unsupportive work environments are examples of these conditions. Clinicians locked into positions with challenging clientele and long hours are especially vulnerable. Other counselors are charged with working in high-stress environments such as jails and hospitals where they are tasked with working with particularly challenging clients. Larger managed care systems can impose external challenges that impact job stress by imposing demanding paperwork requirements or place restrictions on the way services must be delivered.

Counselor Burnout Prevention

Prevention starts with awareness of the signs of job burnout. Prevention models have emerged from a variety of sources as practitioners from counseling, social work, psychology and the medical field have all looked into effective methods for preventing burnout. Once aware of the risk and the conditions that promote counselor burnout, counselors must identify strategies for preventing it and maintaining their own health. Each counselor should analyze their individual circumstances and determine which strategies will be effective in promoting holistic wellness.

Certain factors have been identified by researchers to contribute to the prevention of burnout. An example of such a protective factor is the presence of professional accomplishment. This would be the “felt sense of achievement” derived from a client’s progress, the counselor’s professional advancement or growth, compensatory gain or from the praise or support of colleagues. Another factor, high self-awareness of “mindfulness” is also associated with preventing burnout. An established link between self-awareness and attentiveness to oncoming job burnout symptoms suggests that mindfulness of one’s own stress levels can lead to early intervention and burnout prevention. Finally, personal wellness and self-care for counselors involves taking time for one’s own needs and not just those of clients. In order to model habits that promote mental health for clients, counselors have to truly believe in self-care and commit to self-preserving practices. A number of self-care recommendations commonly found in counseling literature are listed below:

  1. Maintain a healthy work-life balance. Make sure the number of hours spent at work (regardless of if those hours are in therapy or not) is balanced with an equal number of hours spent in meaningful relaxation.
  2. Subscribe to a holistic self-care model that pays attention to aspects of physical, social, mental, emotional, spiritual and vocational wellness.
  3. Seek out and utilize sources of support. These can include material sources such as training in self-care and human resources such as friends, family and personal counseling. Professional supervision can also be a great place for receiving feedback on the signs of burnout.
  4. Set limits and know your boundaries. Know when it is time to let work go and take a break.
  5. Utilize personal therapy as needed. Don’t think that because you are a counselor, you shouldn’t need counseling yourself. Counselors are people too!
  6. Take time for rejuvenating activities that you enjoy—TAKE VACATION TIME.

Closing Thoughts

Being mindful of the signs of job burnout and actively working to prevent its impact is an essential part of professional development for all counselors. Impaired practice is unethical in that it limits therapeutic effectiveness and can put our clients at risk. The American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics (2014) requires that counselors not only monitor their own effectiveness but also seek assistance for persisting problems that impact professional performance. Ultimately, being a professional counselor includes modeling wellness by attending to and combating the threat of counselor burnout. Fortunately, this does not have to be a grievous task, since self-care should be enjoyable and rejuvenating.

If you have some of the natural characteristics of a counselor and are considering answering the call to help others, consider how the Online M.Ed. in Counseling from William & Mary, with focus in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Military and Veterans Counseling or School Counseling, can help you evolve on your path to a fulfilling profession.

  1. ACA code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author. American Counseling Association. (2014)
  2. Barnett, J., Baker, E., Elman, N., Schoener, G., & Roberts, Michael C. (2007). In Pursuit of Wellness: The Self-Care Imperative. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(6), 603-612.
  3. Lawson, G., & Myers, J. E. (2011). Wellness, Professional Quality of Life, and Career-Sustaining Behaviors: What Keeps Us Well? Journal of Counseling & Development, 89(2), 163–171
  4. Merriman, J. (2015). Enhancing Counselor Supervision Through Compassion Fatigue Education. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(3), 370-378.
  5. O'Halloran, Theresa M., & Linton, Jeremy M. (2000). Stress on the Job: Self-Care Resources for Counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 22(4), 354-64.
  6. Richards, K. C., Campenni, C. E., & Muse-Burke, J. L. (2010). Self-care and Well-being in Mental Health Professionals: The Mediating Effects of Self-awareness and Mindfulness. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32(3), 247–264
  7. Skovholt, Thomas M., Grier, Tabitha L., & Hanson, Matthew R. (2001). Career Counseling for Longevity: Self-Care and Burnout Prevention Strategies for Counselor Resilience. Journal of Career Development, 27(3), 167-76