As counselors, we dedicate our lives to helping others. We are the vehicles through which clients can discover meaning and emotional understanding in their lives. However, the draw to assist others comes with emotional hazards that we must acknowledge. During the course of our careers, many counselors experience some level of emotional overload including burnout and compassion fatigue. Burnout happens gradually and occurs when counselors feel overworked and unsupported, and is especially prevalent in those who work in intensive settings. Many counselors also experience compassion fatigue (Figley, 1995), also known as secondary trauma, which can develop rapidly and results from over-identification with the suffering of others who have been exposed to trauma. Both burnout and compassion fatigue can be managed by creating a strategic plan to identify signs, symptoms, and triggers of these occupational hazards.
What is burnout?
Burnout among the helping professionals has drawn attention since the 1970s and was first identified by Pines & Maslach (1978). Burnout among counselors involves physical symptoms like insomnia, exhaustion, and headaches and physiological symptoms like apathy, irritability, and depression (Kerulis, 2013). As the interest in managing burnout among helpers grew, researchers began to conceptualize it in different ways. Three key features of burnout have been identified (Maslach, 2003; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001; Thompson, Amatea, & Thompson, 2014):
- Emotional Exhaustion
- Feeling ineffective/lacking personal accomplishment
In daily life, burnout can result in increased absenteeism at work, symptoms of depression and anxiety, fatigue, and physical symptoms like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular problems. Burnout can be dangerous for both counselors and clients; we have an ethical obligation to maintain clear minds and be available to help clients to the best of our abilities. The developmental model of counseling is focused on building strengths and taking preventive action, and this same model applies when it comes to managing burnout. The following tips will help you take action before burnout takes a toll on you.
1. Understand Your Current Risk Factors of Burnout
Take time to examine your current emotional state as it relates to the counseling you provide to others. Think about a time when you were not feeling burnt out – what was that like? How is it different to how you feel when experiencing burnout? Taking time to reflect upon your current and past states can help you identify your individualized triggers to burnout and help you create a burnout prevention plan.
ACTION TIP: The Traumatology Institute offers five (yes, FIVE) free screenings with self-scoring instructions. Take time to complete the assessments and process your findings with other counselors or with your supervisor.
2. Create a Prevention Plan
If you are enjoying your work and feel connected to your clients, now is the time to consider how to maintain this energy. Consider building a weekly wellness toolkit for managing stress. Exercise, adequate sleep, social events, and relaxing downtime play a role in managing burnout.
ACTION TIP: Rather than waiting to see if you have time to squeeze in these activities, prioritize them on your weekly calendar.
3. Create a Daily Self-Care Routine
Counselors can underestimate the stress that our profession inflicts upon us. It is important to manage stress on a daily basis; if we don’t we increase our risk of serious psychological and physical illnesses that can lead to impairment. Taking a few minutes for self-care each day can help decrease the stress we feel at work and in other environments. Examples of self-care practices include meditation, deep breathing, use of essential oils, or taking a moment between clients and meetings to relax.
ACTION TIP: Create a list of self-care practices that you enjoy. Set a 2-minute timer in your calendar each day. When your self-care timer alerts you, take those 2 minutes to yourself to enjoy something on your self-care list. We can all spare two minutes to take care of ourselves.
4. Engage Your Interests
The chance for burnout is high when counselors neglect engaging in non-work related interests . When you limit yourself to the world of counseling, you are more likely to be thrown off course by a stressful week or challenging clients. The Association for Creativity in Counseling supports the use of creative modalities in and out of sessions. Exercising the creative aspect of yourself can help you reconnect with meaningful and non-work related activities.
ACTION TIP: Think about an activity or interest that you have not engaged in for a while. Maybe it is a project, book, or social activity. Commit to engaging in something that is not counseling related at least once per month.
5. Counseling Theory
Counselors are susceptible to burnout when they take on too much responsibility in the counselor-client relationship. Reflect upon your theoretical training to help clarify your role and the client’s role in progressing toward change. If you find yourself working harder than clients in sessions, you are increasing your risk of burnout. Engaging in theory can also provide renewed energy and interest when you feel stuck or bored with daily work.
ACTION TIP: Think about your theoretical orientation – how do you as a counselor help clients work through issues? With that in mind, check out the most up to date research associated with your theoretical orientation and also look at new evidence-based interventions that might be helpful for your clientele.
6. Seek Consultation
Regular supervision can help address feelings of burnout. Researchers who study mental health professionals found that counselors do not realize how negatively burnout affects the quality of their work, so an outsider’s perspective is a must. In addition to discussing cases, supervisors can provide insight into managing a self-care routine or a hectic workplace. Generating curiosity about theory and interventions through supervision can also fight burnout. Burnout is often associated with workplace issues, so remember to talk with your supervisor about specific workplace issues that you believe impact your (or your co-workers’) risk of burnout.
ACTION TIP: New counselors should engage in weekly supervision and experienced counselors should seek supervision as needed. Consultation is important throughout our careers. Make it a point to discuss your wellness as a counselor during each supervision session to ensure that you have a place to monitor your effectiveness as it relates to potential burnout.
7. Seek Counseling
Counseling is a way to explore personal growth, so recruiting your own counselor is a great defense against burnout. You can know all the tools and theories about managing emotional exhaustion, but sometimes one-to-one conversation is necessary to gain motivation and insight. Trust in the value of your profession and check in with a mental health professional on a regular basis.
As counselors, we know that people prove resilient when they can see problems as solvable and recruit people to help them. Dealing with emotional exhaustion as a counselor is no exception to this rule. Consider what you can do today to help prevent or reduce burnout and thrive in your role as a helper.
Figley, C.R. (Ed.) (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. An Overview. 1-20. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Kerulis, M (2013). The president’s message. The 65th Annual Illinois Counseling Association Conference: Balancing the Dimensions of Wellness. Illinois Counselor, 5, p.2.
Maslach, C. (2003). Job burnout: New directions in research and intervention. Current Directions
in Psychological Science, 12, 189–192.
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397–422.
Pines, A., & Maslach, C. (1978). Characteristics of staff burnout in mental health settings. Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 29, 233–237.
Thompson, I., A., Amatea, E. S., & Thompson, E. S. (2014). Personal and Contextual Predictors of Mental Health Counselors’ Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 36(1), 58-77.
Dr. Michele Kerulis is faculty with Counseling@Northwestern and specializes in counseling athletes, lifestyle, and wellness. Dr. Kerulis is the Midwest Region Representative to the ACA Governing Council and an award winning clinician. Tweet @michelekerulis