I have been working in the mental health field since 2010, and in that time, the topic of wellness has come up often across an array of settings. In my professional counseling roles as an instructor, supervisor, trainer, consultant, therapist and manager, I have witnessed a growing need for wellness practices. And as I have learned more about the impacts of stress on the brain, I have come to better understand the necessity of all professional counselors having strong wellness practices.
Counselor wellness is essential to providing quality services to our clients. I have been able to observe counselors with strong self-care practices who balance boundaries well and maintain strong professional helping relationships with their clients. I have also witnessed the opposite end of the spectrum, in which therapy progress is hindered due to counselor issues such as burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and overcommitment to myriad duties.
The dynamic nature of wellness
Wellness and burnout are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they operate more on a continuum. So, rather than viewing counselors as “burned out” or “not burned out,” we should understand that many counselors oscillate between various levels of wellness and burnout. It is common to see many professional counselors cycle back and forth between varying stages of wellness and burnout. A particular therapist might present with symptoms of burnout during a specific period of time but be well and maintaining strong self-care practices during another period of time. Because of the dynamic nature of wellness, counselors need to revisit this topic frequently.
The theme of self-care has become a hot topic over the past decade. From articles and books on how to promote self-care to ways to address burnout, the professional helping fields have been inundated with information on burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and associated subjects. Even with these themes being more openly discussed in graduate programs and across supervision settings, many counselors could still benefit from practical strategies designed to increase overall mental health and well-being.
One way to provide such information is within the framework of a practical model. Some models found in current counseling articles do address self-care components. However, models could more holistically include self-care components that tie into larger wellness frameworks as an area of growth. Many clinicians verbalize an array of variables that inhibit effective self-care practices. On that basis, I have conducted qualitative research to identify themes related to what gets in the way of wellness. From interviews with master’s-level counselors, I have learned the importance of expanding wellness models to include the array of factors that contribute to self-care or a lack thereof.
A proposed wellness model
From this research in 2019, I and my fellow researcher, Steve Zanskas, developed a three-tiered model for self-care that identifies levels of responsibility targeted at providing an integrative way to increase the effectiveness of wellness pursuits. This model looks at wellness accountability through the lens of individual, supervisory and organizational responsibility. This mirrors feedback provided during interviews with 77 counselors discussing what helps and what hinders their self-care.
This model also provides practical approaches to increasing our awareness of the self-care domains that influence wellness. The model was titled Paths to Wellness based on the idea that wellness pursuits are similar to a journey with many roads leading to the same destination. When we view wellness as a journey, we are able to acknowledge the individuality of self-care pursuits and the layers of wellness that can help to buffer negative professional hazards.
Wellness domain: Individual level of responsibility
Practical wellness check-in:
- What makes me feel recharged?
- What stresses me?
- Where do I feel stress in my body?
- What recharging activities do I need to do when certain stressors occur?
- Do I have a balance of self-care activities across various domains (physical, emotional, intellectual, financial, social, etc.)?
- What can I do to increase balance among my self-care domains?
- Do my values as a person align with the work I am doing?
- Does my job overall give me a sense of satisfaction?
- What job factors are increasing or decreasing my overall wellness?
- What changes can I implement to help me become present and peaceful?
- What resources and supports do I need to make these changes?
- Do I have regular check-ins with myself to reflect and make needed adjustments to my wellness plans?
Wellness domain: Supervisory level of responsibility
Practical wellness check-in:
- Does my supervisor practice self-care and model overall wellness?
- Does my supervisor discuss self-care and check in on my overall wellness?
- Does my supervisor respect my individual self-care needs and support my self-care endeavors?
- Does my supervisor support the use of vacation, sick leave and other paid time off?
- Does my supervisor provide coverage for time off?
- Does my supervisor provide a positive work environment?
- Does my supervisor facilitate teamwork and a positive team culture?
- Does my supervisor support time off for mental health?
Wellness domain: Organizational level of responsibility
Practical wellness check-in:
- Does my organization provide paid time off for vacations or hobbies?
- Does my company provide resources to staff for growth and development?
- Does my company encourage a positive work culture?
- Does my company regularly obtain and utilize employee feedback?
- Do leaders communicate openly and honestly with employees?
- Does my company care about me as an individual?
- Does my company promote work-life balance?
- Does my company provide benefits related to wellness activities (gym reimbursements, health coverage, paid sick time, employee assistance programs)?
- Does my company have policies and processes in place specifically targeted to promote wellness?
The Paths to Wellness model can be used across counselor roles and functions by clinicians, supervisors, counselor educators and organizational leadership. Benefits of this model include use as an assessment and evaluation tool as well as a resource for reflection on further wellness development.
Counselors can use this model as a tool for evaluating their own levels of wellness, helping to inform them of both weak and strong areas related to self-care. In alignment with this, this framework can empower professionals to strategically weigh the benefits and drawbacks of their choices on their overall wellness to make the best decisions for their own self-care at that moment in time.
In the professional realm, counselors could use this evaluation tool when they are asked to consider a new position or added role opportunities or when considering a move to a different employer. New professionals could use it as they decide where to begin their work. The tool can help counselors evaluate how a potential new role or task might affect their self-care and wellness pursuits across individual, supervisory and organizational domains. Such evaluations can provide counselors with a framework to make decisions that align with their wellness goals.
Supervisors can use this tool both at the individual level for themselves and at the supervisory level. The supervisory level aims to assess the current level of wellness modeling and promotion they are providing to their supervisees. The counseling profession regularly promotes supervision and consultation as a positive way to buffer negative client impacts associated with burnout and a lack of overall counselor wellness. The level to which supervision assesses for and positively addresses needs related to self-care and wellness may greatly influence the gains from attending regular supervision.
For supervisors within agencies, this model can help to facilitate increased worker satisfaction by allowing supervisors to better understand and address individual differences that occur within staff groups. This promotes an approach of all staff receiving what they need to support their wellness versus using an “equality standpoint” that provides all staff with the same resources regardless of individual need area.
Organizational leaders can use this model as a screening tool to evaluate the potential wellness impacts associated with each agency policy, process and procedure. Leaders can then advocate for specific policies that better foster employee wellness.
Ideally, policies and procedures would be designed based on feedback gathered directly from agency employees. Regular check-ins with employees and program evaluations designed to get specific responses can provide leaders with employee perspectives. These perspectives can then be used to update and revise wellness-related measures. Furthermore, leaders can model wellness pursuits to help infuse a wellness focus into the fabric of their organizations. This may include leaders showing that it is truly OK to take breaks, set boundaries with time off and maintain healthy habits.
Through agency, employee and supervisory collaboration, wellness gains are possible. Integration across these domains is vital to the successful implementation of self-care pursuits. Because of the dynamic and complex nature of counselor roles and demands, wellness endeavors and need areas should be evaluated often. The Paths to Wellness model serves as one approach that can facilitate wellness promotion and integration. Furthermore, the model can be added to current wellness strategies or used along with other self-care assessments.
With awareness and accountability across individual and systemic levels, wellness cultures are developed. These cultures then begin to thrive as wellness is intentionally integrated into daily practices. This can lead to a ripple effect, with the counseling profession serving as a model for wellness integration throughout other organizations.
Rebekah Lemmons strives to improve outcomes for children, emerging adults and families. For the past decade, her practice and research have primarily been based in the nonprofit sector, with an emphasis on conducting program evaluation, teaching, engaging in service leadership, consulting and providing supervision to clinicians. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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