Avoiding Counselor Burnout

On-the-job stressors are a reality in almost every occupation, which means the signals of job burnout are equally present here. Burnout can have a substantial impact on how well mental health professionals are able to execute their jobs. For health care professionals daily job performance is directly tied to positive outcomes for their patients and decreased or impaired performance can be a significant liability. Counselors specifically should be aware of their reaction to on-the-job stress and the connected impacts of counselor burnout.

Many years of counseling research documents the symptoms, triggers and potential remedies for burnout. These are concepts all practitioners, from counselors in training to veteran clinicians, need to understand if they want to provide consistent, high quality assistance to their clients. Furthermore, counselors have a duty to take suitable care of themselves to safeguard their own mental well-being and be a model of wellness to their clients.

What is job burnout?

The word burnout is frequently linked to various words that provoke feelings of despair such as exhaustion, helplessness and frustration. To really understand how to avoid or correct counselor burnout, professionals should know what it is and why it happens. Various definitions for burnout have been presented by different authors. A psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger was the first author to coin the term.  He 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.” Authors like Maslach and Johnson characterized it as, “emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of clients, and lack of feelings of personal accomplishment.” In rudimentary terms, counselor burnout is the loss of motivation and meaning that is tied to the emotional, mental and physical fatigue that arises from doing therapy.

If referred to as the type of fatigue that comes from on-the-job stress, the question of how to avoid job burnout in the first place arises. The intense levels of empathetic demand and constant contact to clients’ trauma generate perfect conditions for compassion fatigue or emotional exhaustion. High stress work environments and fluctuating levels of accomplishment and support also lead to professional burnout. New counselors should make themselves aware of these hazards and develop an understanding of how they might be vulnerable and create a plan to address with them. Equipped with this knowledge and options for protecting against these risks, professionals can take better care of themselves and avoid submitting to burnout.

What causes burnout?

Unfortunately, the specific characteristics that frequently attract professionals to the counseling field and make them well-matched for the career are the same characteristics that make them susceptible to burnout. Emotionally responsive, empathetic and compassionate individuals are armed to be strong clinicians, but they are also repeatedly exposed to the pain suffered by their clients. Secondary traumatic stress happens when clinicians regularly hear about traumatic events from the lives of their clients that stresses the empathetic response natural for helpers. Due to the type of the work mental health professionals do, this type of stress, also known as compassion fatigue, has become an important topic in counselor burnout studies.

Structural work conditions can also contribute to the risk of burnout. Organizational red tape, large challenging caseloads and an unsupportive work environment are all examples of these conditions. Clinicians tied to jobs with challenging clients and extended hours are particularly vulnerable. Other counselors can be charged with working in highly stressful workplaces such as jails and hospitals where they are working with predominantly difficult clients. Large managed care systems can create external challenges that influence job stress by imposing challenging paperwork requirements or putting restrictions on how services can be delivered.

Counselor Burnout Prevention

To prevent job burnout, you must have awareness of the common signs of it. Prevention models have arisen from various sources as practitioners from counseling, social work, psychology and the medical field have worked toward actual methods for preventing burnout. Once you are aware of the risk and the circumstances that create counselor burnout, counselors must identify plans for preventing it and preserving their own health. Every counselor should examine their own circumstances and decide which options will be best for them to promote holistic wellness.

Common factors have been recognized by researchers to contribute to the prevention of burnout. One example of these protective factors is the existence of professional achievements. This is the “felt sense of achievement” resulting from a client’s progress, the counselor’s professional advancement or growth, monetary gain or from the praise of colleagues. Another key factor, high self-awareness of “mindfulness” is also connected with preventing burnout. A recognized relationship between self-awareness and attentiveness to looming job burnout symptoms suggests mindfulness of one’s own stress levels can lead to early intervention and burnout prevention. Finally, personal wellness and self-care for counselors includes taking time for one’s own needs and not just the needs of clients. In order to model habits that encourage mental health for clients, counselors must have confidence in self-care and pledge to self-preserving practices. Several self-care recommendations regularly found in counseling literature are listed below:

    Maintaining a strong work-life balance. Make sure the spent at work, whether those hours are in therapy or not, is balanced with an equal number of hours spent in meaningful relaxation.

    Pledge to a holistic self-care model that focus on aspects of physical, social, mental, emotional, spiritual and vocational wellness.

    Find and utilize sources of support. These can include different things like material sources such as training in self-care and human resources such as friends, family and personal counseling. Supervision from a peer can also be a great place for getting feedback on the signs of burnout.

    Know your limits and set boundaries. Know when it is time to let work go and relax.

    Use personal therapy when needed. Don’t believe because you are a counselor, you shouldn’t utilize counseling for yourself. 

    Make time for rejuvenating activities that you enjoy—USE VACATION TIME.

Final Thoughts

Being watchful for the signs of job burnout and actively working to avoid its impact is a vital part of professional development for all counselors. Impaired practice is unethical in that restricts therapeutic effectiveness and can put your clients at risk. The American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics (2014) requires counselors not only monitor their own effectiveness but also pursue assistance for continuing problems that effect professional performance. Ultimately, being a professional counselor includes demonstrating wellness by attending to and battling the threat of counselor burnout. Fortunately, this does not have to be a significant task, since self-care is meant to be pleasant and rejuvenating.

  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