Counselor burnout: A Recognizable and Preventable Condition Implications for mental health professionals
Tyler J. Andreula, M.A.
As helping professionals, we are trusted with some of our clients’ deepest, darkest secrets. Each day, we are subjected to the heart-wrenching stories and the immensely difficult life situations of the individuals who come to us seeking change and relief. It is impossible for any helping professional to know what our clients will bring through our door. In this sense, the only constant in our line of work is vicissitude, or variance. Stories compounded by grief, loss, sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and turmoil are all but foreign to us as mental health professionals.
Given how we are exposed to such types of stories and information on a day-to-day basis, it goes without saying that, if we do not properly care for ourselves, we can become prone to burnout, compassion fatigue, and other forms of health problems, such as heart issues (Schneider, 1984), depression and suicidal ideation (Schneider, 1984), compromised immune systems, headaches, stomach problems, and other stress-related problems. Furthermore, if we do not care for ourselves and are not in top form, we cannot expect ourselves to possess the capacity to care for our clients. Thus, our fatigue, if not attended to, can lead to an unintentional disservice to those who seek our help. It is not a matter of if it will come to this, but when, if the problem goes unattended.
Recognizing Burnout and Fatigue
Burnout is a danger that every helping professional should look out for. Kottler (2001) describes burnout as “the single most common personal consequence of practicing therapy” (p. 158). Burke (1981) states that “Under stressful working conditions, counselors using poor coping strategies may become disenchanted, discouraged, irritated, frustrated, and confused, resulting in poor job performance,” thus indicating the severity of this problem. Edelwich and Brodsky (1980, as cited in Kesler, n.d.) describe multiple stages of burnout:
(a) Enthusiasm– “… a tendency to be overly available and to over-identify with clients”
(b) Stagnation– “… expectations shrink to normal proportions and personal discontent begins to surface”
(c) Frustration– “Difficulties seem to multiply and the helper becomes bored, less tolerant, less sympathetic, and she or he copes by avoiding and withdrawing from relationships”
(d) Apathy – “Characterized by depression and listlessness.”
Can you recall – or identify a current – colleague who, due to feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or spread too thin, views coming to work in the morning as a chore? Perhaps a supervisor who complains about taking on a new client due to not having enough time in the day when they actually can fit more clients into their caseload? Do you know of a helper who finds him or herself daydreaming during a session, growing bored, feeling stagnant or complacent, and not knowing what is truly happening in their work with a client? Do you maybe recognize some of these qualities in yourself?
Some of the following might be some more examples of signs of burnout in helpers:
- Dragging oneself to work and then avoiding clients.
- “Giving up” during a session, and ending it early when the counselor is unsure of what direction to take the session in next.
- Missing appointments (or missing work altogether).
- Being late for appointments (or work altogether).
- An increase in judgmental feelings and perspectives toward clients, or a sense of bitterness of resentment (that the counselor did not have before).
- Forgetting to behave ethically (i.e. abruptly terminating, abandoning a client, attempting to treat clients out of your area of expertise, and/or not taking the time to make an appropriate referral).
- Abandoning advanced training that one has experienced (for example, training in a particular theoretical orientation from an institute, etc.).
- Daydreaming about other people, places, situations, lives, lifestyles, times, etc.
- Having the inability to enjoy free or leisure time and, instead, spending that time doing, or thinking about, work.
- Increased/excessive drinking, drug use, and/or eating to relieve or cope with stress.
- Feeling as though your work comes home with you and having an inability to get your clients out of your mind.
- Feeling a sense of vicarious trauma – a sense of trauma from hearing stories of the traumas that your clients have faced.
If left unattended, burnout can become much more serious, drastically inhibiting one’s ability to appropriately counsel their clients, can lead to damaging clients, and possibly, in extreme cases, can cause a helper to leave their field.
Burnout: Where does it come from?
The instances of burnout that I have seen thus far all seem to stem from the same roots – those in our thinking. One of these root systems, of course, germinates in young, passionate, and eager helping professionals who have the desire to help as much as they can, as often as they can. However, this is sometimes done without balancing the other side of the scale – the part of the scale that involves caring for oneself and finding a balance between the identity of a “helper” and the identity of being “human.” Even Superman had a weakness.
Furthermore, seasoned, experienced, veteran helpers can experience symptoms of burnout from simply avoiding the act of engaging in self-care. What we do requires a great deal of emotional investment. It goes without saying that we need to do things to bring our minds (and bodies) back to a neutral, calm, restful place.
Other problems that germinate from seedlings into symptoms of burnout include thoughts and beliefs such as:
- “I must be able to help every client I work with. Not seeing breakthroughs or rapid progress is unacceptable to me, and means I am a poor helper.” – It is obvious that thinking of this kind can lead to burnout quickly, as it would inspire a counselor to push any and all limits. When clients do not make the strides counselors would like to see, counselors can become resentful. It is critical for helpers to realize that it is unreasonable to expect ourselves to have major breakthroughs with every client we work with.
- “I’m not burnt out, I’m just tired” – Call it what you would like, but this feeling of weariness will hinder professional capacities if left unattended. Ask yourself why you are feeling so tired. This sense of denial – the act of disputing the fact that symptoms of burnout are present – can ultimately lead to more impairment.
- “I can handle one more article/book chapter/presentation/conference/client/trainee/intern/etc. even though I’m already feeling stressed.” Sometimes we need to recognize that our pride is getting in the way. Admitting that we have too much on our plate does not make us any less of a person. In fact, it makes us responsible.
Burnout can be Prevented: Caring for Yourself
According to Young (2009), “…the effective helper has good self-care skills. Many who are attracted to this profession want to help others, but soon find that in order to do so they must make certain that they have something to give. It is easy to become emotionally ‘bankrupt’ and ‘burned out’ if one does not develop techniques for stress management, time management, relaxation, leisure, and personal renewal” (p. 21). In other words, what I think this quote means is, if we want to care for others, we must first ensure that we are appropriately caring for ourselves. If we cannot reflect upon our own emotional or psychological states, how can we help others to? After all, the thought that “I am fine and I can keep pushing forward despite how I am feeling” is not our reality. We are people, not machines. We cannot expect ourselves to give to others if our emotional and psychological states leave us with nothing to actually offer.
Here are some tips for preventing (and possibly counteracting) burnout:
- Engage in things that bring you joy and relieve stress.
- Decide on a time of the day when you will not engage in helping-related work and, instead, will focus on leisure.
- Engage in, develop, explore, or take up a new hobby, or revisit one from your past that you enjoyed.
- Take time each day to relax, even if it is only for a half an hour.
- Avoid taking on extra clients if your caseload is full.
- Avoid taking on extra work-related responsibilities if you are feeling overwhelmed or spread too thin.
- Learn to say “No” to yourself – avoid starting a new article, book chapter, or presentation, taking on a new trainee, etc. if you do not feel ready to do so yet.
- Keep your supervision appointments and receive supervision regularly, discussing your concerns. This is where our colleagues and mentors can shed light on our situation. Sometimes an outsider’s perspective helps!
- Receive counseling of your own to manage any difficult feelings you are experiencing.
- Read non-professional literature. Read or learn for fun! (Yes, it is possible!)
- Routinely assess where you stand in regard to your personal state. Reflect on your personal well-being.
In some of my previous work (e.g. Andreula, 2011), I mention that it is not the activity that one selects that matters, but it is the personal escape and “vacation” from our responsibilities that matters. As I have said, helping is draining work!
Andreula, T.J. (2011). Counselors and stress. Student insights column. Exemplar, 26(2), 11.
Burke. R. J. (1981). Increasing the professional effectiveness of school guidance counselors. School
Guidance Worker, 37(7), 51-57.
Kottler, J.A. (2003). On being a therapist (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schneider, J. (1984). Stress, loss, and grief: Understanding their origins and growth potential. Baltimore,
MD: University Park.
Young, M.E. (2009). Learning the art of helping. Building blocks and techniques (4th ed.). Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Pearson.
A Brief Author Bio:
Tyler J. Andreula graduated Summa Cum Laude from Montclair State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology. Soon after, he went on to pursue a Master of Arts degree in counseling at Montclair State University, alcohol and addictions studies with the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, and training in cognitive-behavioral therapy from the Rational Living Therapy Institute as a certified depression specialist. Tyler is a member of Chi Sigma Iota (the national honor society for professional counselors), the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists, the American Counseling Association, and the American School Counselor Association. Along with authoring publications about hot topics in mental health, Tyler currently works providing counseling services to children, adolescents, and their family members.