Tag Archives: Counselor Wellness

Counselor Wellness

Identifying colors to create a rainbow of cohesion in the workplace for helping professionals

By Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere September 7, 2018

The idea for this piece came about when I (Jetaun Bailey) was pursuing my master’s degree in counseling. I recall my professor stating clearly that burnout occurs often among helping professionals and that the average stay for a counselor employed at a mental health facility is two years.

As one of my assignments, I completed and presented a paper on ways for helping professionals to avoid burnout. However, not once in my presentation did I illustrate ways that the workplace could employ preventive services to combat burnout. At the time, my focus was on using self-care and, ultimately, I received a grade of 100 on that project. However, in reflecting on my counseling career, I realized that workplace training programs overlook helping professionals by not addressing topics related to the complex workplace dynamics that may contribute to burnout, which is likely to increase, because the demands in the counseling profession can be overwhelming.

According to Amanda Stemen’s 2014 article, “Burnout: Who’s taking care of the care takers?” management in the helping professions focuses more on clients than on employees. Many factors are related to burnout. Low salaries are one contributing factor but not the most significant. Many of us who enter the helping professions, counseling in particular, understand that we are not pursuing a lucrative career. However, lack of managerial support is believed to be a significant factor in burnout. This lack of support isn’t necessarily intentional; it is thought that many in management believe that helping professionals have innate abilities to solve their work-related problems. However, in many cases, counselors work in isolation, without support from management and peers, and know its effects.

Thus, management’s support is critical in reducing burnout among helping professionals. In speaking with Terra Griffin, a manager at an acute behavioral hospital unit for children and adolescents, she revealed that the turnover in the unit was among the highest in the hospital. Such high employee turnover costs organizations time and productivity. One of the staff’s chief complaints was management’s failure to provide them with relevant training to meet the demands of the job and promote workplace cohesion, which had led to many problems within the teams.

Stemen’s article suggested the need for professional development in addressing burnout. She reports that providing professional development opportunities customized to employees’ interests encourages growth that benefits both the individual employee and the organization.

 

Mind-mapping

One professional development approach is to employ mind-mapping concepts. This is accomplished by creating a specific topic or question so that each person in the training session can see other points of view rather than just his or her own. This nonintrusive approach facilitates group cohesion. Researcher Tony Buzan, the author of Use Your Head, developed the mind-mapping concept in the 1970s. It is designed to facilitate the sharing of ideas and concepts to solve problems.

Through observation, Griffin employed this concept in a series of training sessions simply by asking employees in a unit where turnover had been problematic a simple question: “What is your favorite color?” Initially, the employees did not seem eager to participate in the training session. Remarkably, however, when Griffin focused the initial session on that single question, changes in body language occurred among the staff immediately, as if thinking about their favorite colors had some sort of healing effect. Afterward, they were eager to share their favorite colors and the ways they identified with those colors personally.

Interestingly, although employees weren’t given information about the psychological meaning of each color ahead of time, they ended up describing them similarly to how they were presented on Griffin’s color chart. Furthermore, they could identify their similarities and differences in relation to their multiple colors. This helped shed light on some of the difficulties the employees faced in creating a more cohesive work environment.

Three therapeutic teams were present at each training session, each of which was composed of two therapists, one psychiatrist, several nurses and several behavioral specialists. During their self-exploration of the colors, Team 2 realized that many of its members shared the same favorite color, red, while the two therapists identified with blue. Incidentally, of the three groups, Team 2 was confronting the most difficulties. Many of the team members who identified with red were having difficulties sharing leadership responsibilities and were disregarding the leadership authority of the two therapists who identified, unconsciously, with blue. Once members of Team 2 were able to understand their difficulties, they began to discuss ways that their team could work more cohesively. As a result, Team 2 set team goals, with respecting one another identified as the top priority.

Instead of asking employees direct questions about their workplace problems, this exercise of looking at their favorite colors appeared to be a nonintrusive method that encouraged employees to share their differences. Griffin’s simple question elicited many answers with respect to therapeutic problems occurring in this workplace of helping professionals, and thus promoted resolutions to some stressful issues.

 

The psychology of color

Intrigued with the feedback from the staff during these sessions as they compared their favorite colors to their personalities with respect to their workplace relationships, we set forth to emulate this training. Ultimately, we implemented a similar version in a group of training sessions for graduate students who would be entering the helping profession as practicum and internship students. Their feedback and interactions were outstanding. We learned much about our students that we had not known, and this helped us revamp our practicum and internship training program for students and site supervisors.

As a result, we set out to explore how many nonintrusive, evidence-based training programs of this nature were available. We conducted a content analysis of evidence-based studies on the psychology of color. We also sought to determine the extent to which such training materials are designed to facilitate workplace cohesion among helping professionals.

Using the American Psychological Association (APA) database and electronic resources, we searched APA PsycNET, PsycINFO and PsycARTICLES from their inception through 2018. Furthermore, we used the Google Scholar search engine. The search phrases we used were “evidence-based practices on color psychology” and “training curriculum on color psychology.” The criterion for inclusion for review was that the title contained the search phrase; studies that did not meet the criterion were excluded.

After completing the content analysis, we could not find a single evidence-based study on color psychology or training curriculum related to the topic. We also were unable to determine the extent to which such training curricula facilitated workplace cohesion among helping professionals. There appears to be a significant gap in the literature pertaining to the actual use of color psychology in the facilitation of workplace cohesion in human services or among helping professionals. We did not find any specific evidence-based studies that provided empirical information on training materials on the subject that lead to workplace cohesion. The absence of this information reflects the extent to which the topic is largely unexplored and illustrates what little recognition it is accorded.

In “Colors and trust: The influence of user interface design on trust and reciprocity,” Florian Hawlitschek and colleagues indicate that the literature available on the psychology of color suggests that color preferences associated with personality influence interaction patterns in the employment setting. This illustrates that understanding the role that color preferences play in group behaviors and settings is critical to interprofessional collaborations, especially among helping professionals. Furthermore, other literature has suggested that colors have individual meanings based on a person’s cultural background or racial and ethnic group. Therefore, the influences of color should be interpreted with caution.

However, what made this training so unique is that Griffin did not use any assessment tools to determine anyone’s colors. Instead, she asked each person his or her favorite color and thus gave life to their individuality based on their cultural or racial and ethnic backgrounds without probing for any specific details (colors hold a universal meaning of harmony in many cultures). This mind-mapping technique seemed beneficial. Griffin’s leadership played an important role in helping the employees navigate through their favorite colors by connecting to their personalities and the way they fit within the scheme of their work productivity to create or disrupt cohesion.

 

Conclusion

As the dynamism within health and human service delivery creates more interdependencies, there is a growing need for professionals to collaborate to achieve better client outcomes. However, there is little information on the role that the characteristics of interdisciplinary teams play in promoting synergy that influences such outcomes.

Shared values, mutual respect for colleagues’ expertise, and patient-oriented goals and outcomes are reflections not only of the diverse interests and asymmetry of power of the various partners in care, but also differences in their personalities and preferences. Therefore, fostering workplace cooperation and cohesion is essential for effective, competent, cost-effective, culturally responsive and comprehensive service delivery.

Creating mind-mapping trainings designed to honor individual uniqueness, such as the identification of favorite colors, can help us achieve such cohesion. These trainings draw us into companionship where we can evaluate our similarities and differences through our individual uniqueness, thus creating a meaningful and purposeful work environment for helping professionals and the clients they serve.

 

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Jetaun Bailey is an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University, where she serves as director of clinical training. Contact Jetaun at jetaun.bailey@aamu.edu or baileyjetaun@hotmail.com.

 

Bryan Gere is an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University, where he serves as coordinator of clinical training in rehabilitation counseling. Contact Bryan at bryan.gere@aamu.edu.

 

Terra Griffin, a licensed professional counselor supervisor with more than 15 years of experience in counseling management, supervision and training, contributed to this article.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The hurting counselor

By Gregory K. Moffatt August 13, 2018

It was like someone was sitting on my chest. From the moment I awoke each day, I could barely breathe, and throughout the day, I teetered on the verge of tears. My wife and I had separated, and I thought my 20-year marriage was about to end. My heart was in shreds and, especially because I am a counselor, I was humiliated that I was failing in my marriage. I felt like a fraud in front of my students, and as I struggled through lectures, the words and ideas that left my lips — the ones that normally were energizing to me — now seemed hollow and pointless.

I also struggled to get through my clinical appointments. As one married couple talked about their own pains, resentments and disappointments, I felt so incompetent that it was all I could do not to send them out the door. My worldview — everything I thought I believed in — had been shattered.

And, of course, I also had to face my children, explain things to my extended family and tell my close friends about my troubles. One of the most painful things ever said to me was delivered by one of those people at the time, like a spear thrust into my chest: “You might be a good counselor, but you sure don’t know how to practice it at home.”

It was an impulsive statement not intended to wound me, but those words sealed my burgeoning perception that not only had my marriage failed, but the successful person I thought I had become was merely an illusion. Many times I had talked to others about how failing didn’t make them a failure, but I couldn’t apply those words to myself. I believed I was indeed a failure. Nothing had prepared me for the crippling effects of such a personal crisis on my professional sense of competence, my worldview and my sense of self.

Those days are long behind me now, but the devastating feeling of that painful period was brought back to me recently as I worked with a colleague in the midst of a similar experience. Even now, after many years of healing, that wound is still tender in my heart, and as my colleague talked to me, tears pooling in his eyes, I knew there was little I could say to ease his pain. I recognized that fractured sense of competence in his face. It was the same one that looked back at me from the mirror all those years ago.

Children or no children, short marriage or long, amicable divorce or contentious, splitting up is always painful. I loved my family, and I was willing to do anything to salvage my marriage. In retrospect, that difficult time was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It helped me become a better person, and it helped my wife and me to heal some very deep hurts and disappointments and to begin nurturing a much healthier and happier relationship — one that thrives like wildflowers today. But that experience also taught me that the pain of personal crisis, whatever the cause, can be debilitating to a counselor.

A hard fall

As a professor, writer and clinician, I had always prided myself on practicing the things I taught. Looking back on those years, maybe I succeeded much of the time, but I failed more than I realized. I suppose counselors require a sense of competence, maybe even bordering on arrogance, to take the risks we take each day. After all, we are diagnosing and treating based on a professional judgment call, and if we didn’t have confidence in our abilities, we probably wouldn’t be very good at what we do. We might otherwise stand on the riverbank, foundering in indecision, never daring to venture across.

But that confidence and self-assurance may also blind us and make our fall much harder. As is also true for politicians and religious leaders, people expect more of counselors than perhaps they should. We are, after all, human. But a personal crisis, regardless of whether it is one of our own making, is not just our own. Our pain, embarrassment and shame are inevitably known to many and reflect, however unfairly, on our professionalism. That adds to the weight of our sorrows.

The self-care paradox

There is no shortage of books and articles on self-care for therapists. A quick search in an academic database yielded almost 1,000 articles on the topic. We talk a lot about self-care in our field, but I know that I didn’t practice it well. I suspect I am not alone — and this isn’t a new problem.

My professors and internship supervisors talked about the importance of self-care when I was a graduate student in the 1980s. In 2000, Theresa O’Halloran and Jeremy Linton noted that “wellness is a concept that we as counselors often focus on more readily for our clients than ourselves.” Then, almost 20 years after that, Denis’ A. Thomas and Melanie H. Morris (2017) wrote, “Although most counselors have knowledge about self-care and convey the importance to others, the same knowledge may not translate into self-care action — often when it is needed most.” Apparently, as a group, we practitioners haven’t learned much about the application of self-care in our own lives over the past few decades.

This is such a bizarre paradox. Counselors, of all people, should know better. We are trained to take care of ourselves, and we emphasize the importance of self-care to our clients. Yet my self-confidence in those days caused me to naively believe that crisis wouldn’t knock on my door. I think in some ways, when counselors talk about self-care, it is more of an academic conversation than a real one. It may be something like the fact that we all know we are going to die someday, but it isn’t real to us until we stare it square in the face.

Divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job and chronic mental health issues strike counselors’ homes and lives just as they do the rest of the population, and these issues are potentially just as damaging to us as they are to those who are not in the field of mental health.

I couldn’t have prevented the pain of my own crisis, but there are many things I could have done differently to prepare myself for it. My self-care habits back then were weak at best. I’d like to offer some suggestions that can help counselors navigate the sweeping effects of personal tragedy.

Find a counselor before you need one

Unfortunately for me, when the reality of my fractured marriage came calling, I didn’t already have a personal therapist. I had seen one in the past, but I hadn’t had an appointment with him in years, so long that I couldn’t even remember his name.

I should have known better. All of us learn in graduate school that we need to manage our own issues if we want to be effective therapists, and I had been through both individual and group counseling as a part of my graduate work. I thought I had done enough. I reasoned that I had worked through past issues and found a place for my own life’s traumas. Maybe I thought I had “arrived,” but I was kidding myself. Managing the past helped to some degree but not with maintaining my ongoing mental health. Consequently, I wasn’t growing either.

It is easy to rationalize that the cost of regular therapy — both in time and money — doesn’t make sense. We work hard as counselors, and for every hour we spend in our own therapy, we are also losing money because we aren’t seeing clients. But that is false economy. Even if we are managing life fairly well, it still helps to get a checkup. I get a physical every year even though I’m fine; I go to the dentist twice a year even though I don’t have cavities; and I go to the eye doctor each year even though my eyesight is OK. I should have applied the same philosophy to my mental health, getting a mental health checkup every few months at minimum.

So, there I was, in crisis and in need of a therapist, and I had absolutely no idea who to turn to. Plus, I had another serious dilemma that is common among counselors. Almost everyone I knew and trusted in the field couldn’t ethically see me as a client. They were friends, colleagues, former students or former supervisees. I’d consulted with them, taught them or socialized with them. Now I had to find a therapist in the midst of my crisis, and I was left with the phone book — something I always tell people to avoid.

If I had been maintaining an ongoing relationship with a therapist already, this part of my crisis management would have been simple. For that matter, it’s very likely that at least some of the crisis itself might have been avoided. I’ll never find myself in that place again.

Exercise, eat right and rest

Good mental health requires us to eat right, sleep right and get reasonable exercise. I call it “Moffatt’s Mantra,” something my students, interns, supervisees and clients undoubtedly get tired of hearing.

Even before my crisis, I slept poorly, sometimes getting only an hour or two of sleep a night. This went on for years, and just as I apparently had been doing with my personal life issues, I chose to ignore my sleep issues. Oddly, my sleep problems allowed me to be exceptionally productive. Getting to my office sometimes at 1:30 or 2 a.m., I wrote prolifically, publishing many books and articles as a result. But then, in the midst of crisis when I desperately needed rest, even the little sleep I ordinarily might have gotten evaporated. I was preoccupied with shame, regrets and hopes, and sleep was nearly impossible. I made an appointment with my prescriber and began taking regular sleep aids, which was critical to my healing. Almost immediately, a reasonable night’s rest helped my mood improve.

Likewise, in those days, I rarely ate breakfast and often skipped lunch, only to overeat at the meals I did have. Fortunately, I have never been one to eat junk food, but my Southern diet was full of fried foods, fats and carbs. When crisis hit, I couldn’t eat at all. My stomach was upset, and I had a hard time downing even a few bites. Over just a few weeks, I lost more than 20 pounds. Just as was true with my sleep patterns, crisis magnified my poor eating habits. A good friend forced me to eat, often sitting with me during meals — including some that he made himself — to ensure I was getting at least some nutrition.

Of the three areas that constitute Moffatt’s Mantra, exercise was the only one that came easy to me. I have always been good about getting some type of daily exercise — running, biking, swimming or even all three in one day. This is the only thing that helped me offset the fatty, fried-food diet that was my routine and prevented me from gaining unhealthy weight.

Exercise has myriad benefits. Aside from building endurance, muscle tone and a stronger heart, it also improves quality of sleep and mood in general. Research has demonstrated that attention to healthy, reasonable exercise can either lessen the demand for medication or remove its necessity altogether, even with serious issues such as chronic depression. Exercise produces morphine-like endorphins that help to balance our moods. Even moderate exercise just two or three days a week can help manage weight and increase metabolism. Seeing a thinner self in the mirror can also improve mood.

“I’m too busy to exercise” is a very weak excuse. I was very glad that I didn’t have to add exercise to my life during the crisis because I doubt I would have possessed the motivation to work out and try to get in shape.

Supervision

Most counselors engage in supervision until a license or related credential is achieved, but after that, they rarely pursue any form of formal supervision. I think that is a mistake. As a supervisor myself, I have to recognize when a supervisee’s personal life issues, whatever they may be, are interfering with clinical practice without crossing the line and functioning as my supervisee’s therapist.

It would have been wise to have a second set of eyes during my crisis to evaluate my competence and ability to work with the clients I continued to see. An ongoing relationship with a trusted mentor or supervisor not only helps make us better counselors, but our supervisors may also be able to recognize when we are off our game. We lack objectivity when it comes to our own lives — both professional and personal.

That well-known line, “Physician, heal thyself,” sounds good, but it is an unattainable goal. Looking back at my own history, I was totally blinded by limitations of maturity and knowledge as well as by my good intentions. It is only through the lens of time that I am able to see that now. There is no way I could have been fully aware back then. Retaining a mentor who could have helped identify when it was time for me to take a step back would have been advisable.

Don’t forget to play

Building a private practice takes time, and many counselors burn the candle at both ends, working late hours and weekends, and seeing 35 to 40 clients per week. Such a schedule is unsustainable without life balance.

There is a huge body of research cataloging the benefits of play. It used to be thought that play was a kid thing. That is absolutely false. Human beings — in fact, most mammals — are prewired to play. The need to play doesn’t end at some arbitrary age that we call adulthood.

In general, research demonstrates the health benefits of play when it offers enjoyment and when the participant suspends time and place in exchange for focusing on an entertaining goal, such as winning a board game, playing tag or shooting basketball. Adults who play are happier and manage stress better. Play boosts morale, improves our “marketability” with the opposite sex and reduces heart rate. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Play even demonstrated the need for play among astronauts and proposed that NASA formally develop a “playscape” for those in microgravity.

Golfing, biking, hiking, playing games with your children or putting together a jigsaw puzzle are only some of the varied activities that constitute play. My favorite play activity these days is camping, and I am in the woods at least one or two days a month throughout the year — rain or shine, hot or cold. The isolation and recreation of the mountains energizes me and recharges my batteries.

Know your limits

One of my strengths in life is that I have never once done anything simply for money. Money doesn’t own me, so nobody else does either. But it is an easy mistake to make, especially as an American, to keep striving for more — a bigger house, a larger counseling practice, more staff, one more speaking engagement, more clients and so on.

Even when your practice energizes you, there has to be something more in life than appointments. It seems so logical, however, to keep taking on new obligations, mistakenly believing that you are “building a practice” when, in fact, you are burning the bridge from both banks. Long-term goals require some sacrifice, of course, but the decision of what to do and what to cut should be based on something other than the bottom line of your bank account or an arbitrary conceptualization of success.

Another reality is that in the midst of crisis, you can’t expect yourself to perform at the same level you would when your life is more normal. When I plunged into crisis, I cut back on as much as I could. I still had to teach my classes, and I continued to see the clients on my caseload I felt I could ethically handle. But I took no new clients, accepted no new speaking engagements, put all of my writing projects on hold and cleared my calendar, canceling a number of events I just didn’t feel strong enough to manage.

You will assume that this article doesn’t apply to you

There are varied perspectives on self-care, but I particularly like O’Halloran and Linton (2000), who propose focusing on wellness in six domains: social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and professional. Prior to my crisis, I had focused only on one or two of these, even though self-care is mandated by the ACA Code of Ethics. The suggestions I have offered about self-care are a start, but if history has taught me anything, I predict that most readers will say to themselves, “That was an important article. Glad it doesn’t apply to me.” And then 10 or 20 years from now, somebody else will be writing an article for counselors addressing the need for self-care. I would love to be proved wrong.

Just because we are counselors doesn’t make us immune to the ills of life any more than an oncologist is immune to the risks of cancer. In the 1990s, when Elisabeth Kübler-Ross experienced a series of serious health issues, she recanted her “stage theory” completely. A full-page article in my local paper described her health woes and her disparaging comments regarding her theory. I thought at the time her recanting of the theory was, ironically, demonstrative of the anger stage of that very theory. Before her death some years later, she said as much and reaffirmed her personal belief in her theory and life’s work. Despite our knowledge and experience, a crisis blinds us. Affect always trumps logic.

Taking good care of yourself is not only healthy for you, it will help you better serve your clients. Even chronic mental health issues such as depression do not preclude our competence. One of the most influential people in my professional life endured a lifelong battle with depression. I had known her a very long time before she confided that information to me. But she was an amazing mentor whose words and example influence me to this day. Likewise, one of the most naturally gifted interns I have ever had was a woman who suffered major depressive disorder, marriage issues and significant self-esteem issues throughout most of her life. But when she closed her door to begin therapy with her clients, she was amazing.

Both of these women were surprisingly strong, despite their personal life frailties. I am confident that they had learned to manage their challenges — not avoid them — and had developed self-care processes that allowed them to flourish in the counseling room.

It is with some embarrassment that I share my personal failures with you, but as always, this isn’t about me. Instead, I am hopeful that sharing my struggles can help you to avoid the mistakes I made. Pain will eventually find us all. I hope that, with better preparations than I made for myself, you can be prepared to weather the inevitable storms on your own horizons.

My friend has a very long road ahead of him. Recovering when your world lies in tatters around your feet is overwhelming. But he has me — a friend and a confidant. He has his therapist. And he has the physical and spiritual health to face this daily challenge. That is a great start.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a professor of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. He is a licensed professional counselor and a certified professional counselor supervisor. Contact him at greg.moffatt@point.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:

The battle against burnout

A counselor’s journey back from burnout

Wellness matters

Doing our own work: A parallel process

Behind the Book: Counselor Self-Care

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Self-care for the activist counselor

By Shekila Melchior and Dannette Gomez Beane June 4, 2018

An activist is a person who campaigns and takes action for social change. Counselors are often activists for their clients and for their profession by nature of being in a helping field.

The issue of self-care looms for both counselor practitioners and counselor educators as we face difficult client issues, large caseloads and demanding work environments. The need for self-care only intensifies when societal issues grow more divisive and combative, as we have experienced over the past year or more. Contentious social movements and issues such as #BlackLivesMatter and immigration can have an impact on the climate of care we provide as counselors for our clients and for the communities in which we live.

A tale of two doctoral students

Being a doctoral counseling student is stressful. Being a doctoral counseling student whose research is directly affected by the social movements and climate of the nation is even more stressful.

Shekila’s journey

When I (Shekila Melchior) chose my dissertation topic, “The Social Justice Identity Development of School Counselors Who Advocate for Undocumented Students,” in spring 2016, I had no idea what lay ahead. At the time of my data collection, a heated and divisive presidential election was unfolding in which the issue of undocumented immigration had turned into a political platform. The United States was inundated with xenophobic remarks, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the proposition of erecting physical structures to prevent individuals from entering the country.

On Election Day, concern turned to fear for many people who were confronted with the harsh reality of an unstable future — namely, that their ability to continue residing in the United States was in peril. After the election of President Donald Trump, I questioned whether anyone would participate in my research interviews regarding undocumented students. The climate in our country had changed, but my timeline for defending my research had not.

As an advocate, I was flooded with messages about protest marches and prompting me to write to Congress and participate in meetings to educate others. As a friend, I listened to the concerns of those closest to me who were fearful of deportation and of the possible termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, implemented by the Obama administration to provide temporary protections to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. As a researcher, I encountered participants who were concerned for their students and eager for their voices — and the voices of their students — to be heard.

Dannette’s journey

When I (Dannette Gomez Beane) chose my dissertation topic, “Virginia Counselors’ Engagement With Social Issues Advocacy for Black/African American Clients/Students” in spring 2017, I never could have predicted what would occur that fall. During the time that I was engaged in my data collection, the white supremacist rallies that ended in violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, transpired. The topic of race relations was suddenly on everyone’s mind, but especially mine as my dissertation clock ticked.

I had difficulty telling people about my research. People didn’t understand why we were always talking about race. People found it even more bizarre that, as a Latina, I had chosen a topic that concerned African Americans. My reasons for picking the topic had everything to do with the revolving door of students in my office who could not attend class, turn in assignments or even talk to their friends because they felt so debilitated from what was going on around them. I just kept thinking, “What can I do to help? What are counselors in my state doing to help these students?”

Responses and critical incidents

We (Shekila and Dannette) processed our own personal reactions to these events. The issues that arose during the writing of our dissertations served as motivation to complete our research. Although both of us feared the worst, we hoped for the best as our research progressed. Our fear was that what was occurring nationally and regionally would silence the participation of counselors, causing them to retreat to neutrality out of a concern of responding in a socially undesirable way. Our hope was that counselors would rise to the occasion and speak on behalf of those marginalized populations that needed advocacy. Ultimately, both of us were successful in our data collection, and the respondents to our studies commented with expressions of concern for themselves and their clients/students.

One counselor who responded to Dannette’s study said, “I work in a rural county in the South and have about 20 percent of my population that is African American. I also work in a system very close to Charlottesville. We always have race issues.”

A participant in Shekila’s study shared the frustrations of their students. The participant recalled a time when one of their students wore a T-shirt that said “Relax Trump, I’m Legal.” Another participant who was a DACA recipient was concerned that he might no longer be able to work with his students if DACA were repealed.

The “critical incident” experienced by the advocate begins a process of cognitive dissonance, a “waking up.” According to Leon Festinger’s theory, when individuals experience cognitive dissonance, it changes the core of what they believe, leading them to wrestle with new information in light of things they have previously understood (for more, see Paul C. Gorski’s article “Cognitive dissonance as a strategy in social justice training” in the Fall 2009 issue of Multicultural Education). Thus, advocates begin to recognize the shift within themselves as it relates to a social issue.

Encountering an undocumented student as a high school counselor served as my (Shekila’s) critical incident. In that moment, I felt helpless and uninformed, but through that critical incident, I began my research, which later propelled me to a place of advocacy.

One of my research participants made a statement about how activist counselors develop: “I think that over time, because of my being sensitive to some of their [undocumented students’] struggles and just seeing the human side to their stories … there’s stuff that you don’t learn being in the counseling program. It’s like baptism by fire with that. It’s not something that I can teach. You can’t teach people to be empathetic like that. You can certainly tell them this is how you go about it, but you either have that or you don’t have that. You may be able to awaken something in someone with it, but if it’s not there, it’s not there.”

Dannette’s research is informed by racial identity development theory, with “encounter” being a stage in which a person is faced with the realization that race matters. Counselors who experience these “critical” or “encounter” moments are undeterred from participating with and advocating for others. On the other hand, counselors who have not experienced such a profound incident may not be as moved to engage in social issues advocacy.

As one of Dannette’s study respondents shared, “During an incident that occurred last year at my school when a black/African American student was suspended, I was told by my admin to stay out of it. I felt strongly that the way it was handled was discrimination, and [I] was very disturbed. I was able to discuss the incident with the parent in private and give [her] tools to help advocate for her son. She was also upset because of the way it was managed. I was not able to get into it too deeply with the parent because I felt my job was in jeopardy. However, I was able to encourage her to take it further and add insight into the best way to do so.”

The adversity we face in our work, school and personal lives for participating in social issues advocacy is heightened when incidents occur that feed the political divisiveness. The emotional toil that advocating takes on the activist counselor can be daunting. The work is ever-changing and never-ending. The activist counselor strives to always be informed and to inform others. The greater the degree of political divisiveness, the more strain it can take on the activist counselor. Compassion fatigue can set in, which brings us to self-care.

Avoid, engage, deflect

How can we seek and find comfort, understanding and care when we make our living and have developed our identities as activist counselors? Speaking as the authors of this article, we rely on peer support, faculty advisers, family members, friends and faith communities. At times, however, these normal sources of support and encouragement do not align with the activist mentality; in fact, they sometimes choose to remain neutral or even work against the advocacy. In such cases, activist counselors are left to do one of the following: avoid, engage or deflect.

Note: We (the authors) avoid going to social media for support because we find that causes another layer of stress that will not be addressed in this article.

Avoidance

Our identity as activist counselors is hard to shut off. Some would argue that it never shuts off. Avoiding times when our “buttons are pushed” is a skill that takes practice. The benefit to avoiding adversarial opinions is that of self-preservation. We sometimes “pick our battles” when engaging in dialogue and try to focus on the outcome of peace if avoidance is the best decision. The risk is that we miss a teachable moment or fail to use our place of privilege to educate others.

Engagement

As activist counselors, we are good at compartmentalizing our needs and views for the well-being of others, but when it comes to standing up for what we believe in outside of the therapeutic relationship, we typically take the opportunity to engage.

We often encourage our clients to engage with conflict because it is a practice that almost always results in growth and stretching. Engaging with conflict is natural for counselors who help others to face their fears, practice change and reframe ideologies. The benefit of engaging with adversarial views is that dialogue can emerge, allowing opportunities to increase understanding of and empathy for the other’s view. The risk of this engagement is that the dialogue might turn into an argument, with one-sided views and the shutting down of a topic or, worse, a relationship. As counselors, we are trained to de-escalate these types of heated situations, finding ways to redirect or, in some instances, deflect.

Deflection

Here it comes. You have no time to avoid or engage. A person in your life just dropped a statement that goes against your activist counselor mindset and identity. You know what this sounds like. It is a statement such as “I don’t see _____. All people are the same in my eyes” or “Those people need to ______.” You are left to react without warning.

One approach, especially when caught off guard, is to deflect. The risk in deflecting is that we may seem like we are not paying attention to what the person is saying because we choose to change the topic. This could cause suspicion or hurt if the person is hoping for our engagement in this topic. The benefit is that we do not engage in what could be a relationship-ending conversation depending on the situation.

Recharging the activist self

Avoidance, engagement and deflection are just three examples of ways to approach our daily walk as activist counselors. Counselors regularly encounter situations that must be navigated carefully, and there is no judgment in using any of these three approaches.

As activist counselors, we are hard-wired to serve. But we cannot continue to serve well unless we are diligent in practicing self-care. In this context, self-care does not mean going to the local spa (although we all need that kind of treatment every once in a while). Self-care means filling our cups back up when we are feeling low. Here are some strategies that we have found helpful in recharging our activist selves.

1) Reflect often: We must ask ourselves, why do we do what we do? Reflection is a key component to self-actualization and bringing meaning to our work. Through reflection, we can be in a constant state of improvement. We become more aware, become more open-minded, more readily recognize our own biases and work toward personal growth and change. Reflection enables counselors to grow in both empathy and connection to others.

2) Remain informed: Activist counselors must stay informed of real stories and real facts so they can remain rooted in the truths of people’s experiences rather than getting caught up in the media spin. Counselors must also stay up-to-date with evolving issues as they become more complex. It is imperative for counselors to see events from all angles and to seek out the voices that have been silenced.

3) Give voice to the voiceless: That brings us to using our power for good. As counselors, we hold a position of authority with the clients and students we serve. In addition, our education provides us with privilege that can be used to give voice to those who have been silenced, including individuals who are struggling to enjoy basic freedoms in this country. Our voices are needed. Our voices should be heard.

As counselors, we are always to remember beneficence — to do good and to promote the well-being of others. This is our strength in the counseling relationship. As activist counselors, we must also recognize when rest is needed and when we need to ask for help. Remember that we advocate together to eradicate the systemic oppression that impacts our clients and our students — and even us — every day.

Together, we are change agents. The foundation of what we do and why we do it can be summed up in a quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

 

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Shekila Melchior is an assistant professor and program coordinator of school counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Contact her at shekila-melchior@utc.edu.

Dannette Gomez Beane is the director of recruitment and operations of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. She adjunct teaches for the counselor education programs at Virginia Tech and Buena Vista University. Contact her at gomezds@vt.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Behind the Book: Counselor Self-Care

By Bethany Bray April 23, 2018

There is no perfect plan when it comes to self-care. The important thing is to have a plan and make self-care a career-long focus. Not only will the methods that counselors find effective vary from practitioner to practitioner, but a self-care routine will also need to evolve to meet changing needs throughout a counselor’s career.

“No one person has the ideal formula for optimal self-care; We are unique individuals with varied life experiences,” write the co-authors of Counselor Self-Care. The book, recently published by the American Counseling Association, compiles the insights and personal self-care journeys of more than 50 counselors from across the profession in various stages of their careers.

Counseling Today sent the co-authors some questions, via email, to learn more. Gerald Corey is an ACA fellow and professor emeritus of human services and counseling at California State University, Fullerton; Michelle Muratori is a senior counselor at the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; Jude T. Austin II is an assistant professor in the Counseling and Human Services Department at Old Dominion University; and Julius A. Austin is an assistant professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy and Counseling Studies program at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

 

 

Q+A: Counselor Self-Care

Responses co-written by Gerald Corey, Michelle Muratori, Jude T. Austin II and Julius A. Austin

 

Why, in your opinions, is self-care considered an ethical mandate?

Simply put, we can place our clients in danger when we do not take care of ourselves as counselors. It is hard for us to believe that counselors can make sound decisions regarding their clients’ welfare when they are struggling to make sound decisions about their own welfare.

Self-care as an ethical mandate involves taking active steps to acquire and maintain wellness in all aspects of living. The concept of wellness is a lifelong journey that has implications for us both personally and professionally. We sometimes hear that self-love and self-care are signs of selfishness. As co-authors of this book, we believe that it is not a matter of self-care versus caring for others. It is surely possible to be invested in both. We may feel invested in promoting a good life for others and be instrumental in improving conditions in our communities. But to be genuinely involved in social action and bettering society, we need to begin with ourselves. Taking time to reflect on the quality of our lives is a good beginning for making changes in our behavior that will lead to increased wellness.

If we neglect caring for ourselves on a regular basis, our professional work suffers, so self-care is a basic tenet of ethical practice. If we are drained and depleted, we will not have much to give to those who need our time and presence. The prevention of burnout and the commitment to monitoring ourselves is a cardinal ethical principle. The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics includes the statement that “counselors engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing to best meet their professional responsibilities” (Introduction to Section C, Professional Responsibilities). Meeting this ethical standard is not a final event, but instead it is a call for counselors to reflect daily on what they are doing and the degree to which their behavior is working. Self-care can be thought of as a set of practices that prevent emotional depletion and burnout.

Books and chapters, as well as articles in the professional journals are being written on counselors focusing on prevention of burnout, as well as learning to manage personal and professional stress. One example of this is Counseling Today’s recent article “The Battle Against Burnout” (the cover story of the April issue).

 

In general, do you feel that new counselors emerge from graduate and training programs with an adequate understanding and focus on self-care?

We have not conducted any surveys on self-care in graduate programs, so we cannot answer this question with supporting empirical evidence. It is our assumption that counselor preparation programs do their best to give this topic some degree of attention. In fact, some programs may do a fine job of educating their trainees about the hazards of burnout and the necessity for self-care. However, understanding the concepts intellectually and experiencing the demands of the profession firsthand are two different things.

Each of us has heard from trainees during their practicums and internships that they are surprised by the intensity of the work and the stress that it produces. Too often students graduate and enter the early phase of their career with idealism and optimism, only to encounter barriers to achieving their professional goals and maintaining wellness. The amount of paperwork, responsibility, emotional energy, and strain on personal relationships are just a few things our students said they wish they would have known about before graduation. At times, their optimism wanes and their hopes to see changes are dashed, which leads to disillusionment, exhaustion, and early stages of burnout.

While we cannot speak with authority about programs in general, we can speak about what we do to encourage our students to develop self-care practices that will bode them well in graduate school and strategies that can enable them to prevent burnout. As co-authors of this book, the four of us take the ethical imperative of self-care very seriously and do our best to incorporate self-care activities and practices in the courses we teach and in our role as mentors with the many students with whom we work.

We think it is of paramount importance that faculty model attitudes and practices of self-care. Our students will be more impressed by who we are and how we interact with them than by our lectures on self-care. In our respective programs, many of our colleagues introduce a variety of self-care activities in their classes, including mindfulness exercises. Some of us encourage students to develop a self-care action plan, and to think of ways to make learning a personal journey rather than a strictly academic pursuit.

 

What resources would you suggest for a “veteran” counselor who has been working in the field for a while and is looking for ways to boost or update/refresh their self-care routine?

To update/refresh their self-care routine, experienced counselors need to endorse the value of lifelong learning, realizing that their education and development do not stop at graduation. One of the best ways to revitalize their self-care routine is to find new ways to connect to valued colleagues who share their passion for this work. Colleagues can serve as mentors long after we are into the professional field. Personally, we find attending professional conferences, workshops, learning institutes and other forms of continuing education to be valuable resources and networking opportunities. The four of us attend the ACA conference every year in addition to other professional meetings. We always come away feeling inspired, with new ways of thinking about topics that matter to us. We typically present education sessions and participate in learning institutes, and this affords us opportunities to work with students and counselors from various parts of the country. This is energizing for all of us! We also try to carve out time to enjoy lunch or dinner with colleagues, former students and friends in the area. We also intentionally make time to rest, sightsee and enjoy what the conference’s host city has to offer. These activities recharge our batteries and equip us with new tools to bring back to our students, clients and supervisees.

Besides keeping professionally updated, we are convinced that counselors who have worked in the field for a while can bring more vitality to their work if they are attending to their personal lives. Thus, engaging in various forms of recreation and hobbies are ways to refresh our self-care routine. Participating in travel can be taxing, but it can also broaden our perspectives and help to keep us interested and interesting. Another strategy is to try something new that has nothing to do with professional development. We might try a new sport, plant a garden, play a new video game, read a book purely for pleasure, learn a musical instrument or implement a new exercise routine. We must find ways to boost our routine when it starts to feel stale. What is critical is that each of us must find our own path for retaining our vitality, both personally and professionally.

 

Self-care that a counselor finds helpful will differ and evolve throughout their career. What would you want counselors to know about the need to change and adapt their self-care routine as they grow as a professional?

We would want counselors to know that self-care is a delicate process that is unique to each counselor. What works from some may not work for others. Moreover, a self-care plan that meets one’s needs at a certain point in one’s career may no longer serve us at a later time. There are likely to be many twists and turns in the evolution of our career; thus, we may need to be prepared to adapt our self-care practices accordingly. Being patient with this process and with ourselves as we navigate new personal and professional experiences is of the utmost importance.

As alluded to, even if we have been successful in establishing self-care practices as we begin our career, we are likely to find that we need to make changes as we take on new responsibilities. These stages include (1) graduate school; (2) early career; (3) mid-career; and (4) late career. Since each of the co-authors is presently in a different stage of professional development, we each describe challenges we face and how we do our best to thrive personally and professionally. In our book, Counselor-Self Care, we devote a chapter to self-care across the seasons of our career, in which we address this question in some depth.

Self-care involves unique challenges at each developmental stage in a career. For example, how we meet these tasks during graduate school has implications for how well we will be able to address them throughout our career. Transitions in life can be stressful, even when they bring about positive change. One such transition is leaving the safety net of a graduate program and launching a career as a new professional. Entering this next season of their life and career as early professionals can indeed be very exciting. However, it is a period when many changes occur and major life decisions are made.

As clinicians and counselor educators gain more experience in their professional roles and enter into the mid-career phase, it is likely that they will be expected to take on greater professional responsibilities, which are inherently stressful. For instance, clinicians may be promoted to positions that require them to supervise others and manage budgets while those pursuing positions in higher education may have to weather the challenges associated with going up for tenure. At the same time, they may be experiencing developmental stressors in their personal lives such as dealing with aging parents or children leaving the nest to go away to college or to enter the workforce. For mid-career mental health practitioners, the challenge involves becoming aware of developmental stressors, finding ways to maintain competence and assuming an active role in engaging in lifelong learning. This is a time for practitioners to continue to become aware of common risks for burnout and to monitor how well they are managing stress, especially with the increasing demands associated with a mid-career. It is important to adopt an active role in collaborating with colleagues and to avoid professional isolation and burnout.

The late-career professionals often are faced with adapting their lifestyle and self-care routines. Retirement is a part of this phase of one’s career. Retirement is an opportunity to redesign our life and to tap unused potentials; it is not an end to all work. There are many choices open to us as we embark on the path toward retirement. We can get involved with the projects we might have put aside due to the demands of our job. We can discover that retirement is not an end, but rather a new beginning. Retirement is a major transition in life that brings a variety of choices and transitions. A major developmental task we face as we retire is deciding which path we will take to continue to find meaning in life.

 

What prompted you to collaborate and create the book? Why do you feel it’s a relevant/needed topic to cover now?

A combination of factors prompted us to collaborate and create this book. Primarily, our relationships with one another as a collaborative team on various other projects sparked our excitement to work together again. While attending professional conferences, we had observed a large number of attendees at self-care presentations and had noted that self-care for mental health professionals was being given more attention in the literature. In addition, we noticed a number of our own students, supervisees and colleagues asking for more information about self-care and talking about how spread thin they were with all of their demands. When we initially brainstormed ideas, we realized that the book would have more depth if we brought our combined life experiences and perspectives to the project.

We aimed to write a book that presented diverse perspectives on self-care with the objective of encouraging counselors and counselor trainees to evaluate their present level of self-care and consider specific changes they want to make in attending to all aspects of wellness in their personal life. The book gives readers a chance to look into the lives of many different helping professionals as they wrestle with taking care of themselves.

The four of us are engaged in professional work in different settings and are at different stages in our careers. Two of us are early-career professionals, one of us is a mid-career person, and one of us is a person in his late career. Individually and collectively our aim was to offer a balance of challenge and support as our readers consider ways to enhance their personal and professional life through self-care.

Early on we decided to invite guest contributors to share their experiences in meeting the ethical mandate of self-care. We exchanged ideas on how we could reach our audience with the message “Counselor, take care of thyself!” Our many discussions led to our decision to include a wide range of students, counselor practitioners, and counselor educators to share their self-care stories. We were impressed with their levels of honesty and courage in disclosing their struggles and sharing the action plans they devised to treat themselves with increased kindness and compassion. Despite the obstacles our guest contributors encountered, their stories are filled with their hopes and visions for the future. Many themes were explored, including not demanding perfection in taking care of themselves, continuing to strive to do better despite occasional setbacks, asking for the help they needed, recognizing that consistency in self-care practice is essential to competently serving others and that self-care is a process.

 

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Our hope is that readers will be motivated to engage in honest self-reflection of where they are now and where they would like to be in their self-care program. After reading the narratives of 52 guest contributors about their experiences with self-care, along with our thoughts and experiences related to this topic in each chapter, readers can continue to implement a personal action plan that will lead to wellness in all aspects of their lives.

There is no perfect plan that will motivate us to achieve our self-care goals, yet if we have no plan it will be difficult for us to survive the demands of our professional work, let alone thrive in our lives and careers. It is our hope that students and counselors who complete this book will make a comprehensive assessment of their current behavior and determine what changes they want to make to better meet their needs — physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually.

As counselors, we have the responsibility to do whatever it takes to be as present and effective with our first client of the day through to our last. We need to remind ourselves that self-care is not a project that is completed once and for all, but rather it is a process of taking care of ourselves. We need to put ourselves in our schedule so that we will have the stamina to fulfill the many demands of our professional work. It is our expectation that readers will see that burnout and impairment are not inevitable. If we make self-care a priority, not only can we stave off burnout, but we can engage in daily practices leading to wellness.

 

 

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Counselor Self-Care is available both in print and as an e-book from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-347-6647 x222

 

Attending the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta this month? Check out these events with the authors of Counselor Self-Care:

  • Wednesday, April 25, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.: Learning Institute “Taking Care of Yourself: A Luxury or an Ethical Mandate?”
  • Friday, April 27, 11 a.m. to noon: Counselor Self-Care author content session
  • Thursday, April 26 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. and Friday, April 27 from noon to 1 p.m.: Counselor Self-Care author book signings

See counseling.org/conference for more details

 

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Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

 

 

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The battle against burnout

By Bethany Bray March 28, 2018

Fill in the blank: The way to avoid burnout is __________ .
Self-care? Professional fulfillment? Spirituality? All of the above? The answer to this question will be different for each person — and most likely involve more than one idea. The question, however, needs to be continually on the minds of counselors, both for their own good and for the good of their clients.

Counselors, as helping professionals who listen to and support clients through some heavy and distressing issues, often on a daily basis, are at high risk for professional burnout. Researchers focusing on practitioner burnout for a 2012 Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research journal article found that as many as 2 out of every 3 mental health workers “may be experiencing high levels of burnout.”

But helping professionals aren’t the only ones who can be pushed to the limit. Clients can burn out as well, whether they’re parents struggling to balance work and family life or individuals who feel stretched to the max by the demands of their job and other aspects of life.

In other words, “anybody and everybody” is at risk of burnout at different points in their lives and careers, says Kayla Pedigo, a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified sex offender treatment provider in Idaho. Even so, counselors often internalize the harmful negative associations that society at large holds about seeking help.

“It’s very difficult to say, ‘I need some time for myself.’ That can feel selfish for a helper. It takes a lot of strength to know what you need and how to ask for it,” says Pedigo, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Counselors can fall into the trap of feeling that they “should have it all figured out,” says Allison Crowe, an ACA member and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in North Carolina. “It’s a myth that we don’t need our own support at different times. Going through a master’s program in mental health does not negate the need for personal mental health help down the road.”

“Stress is not a diagnosable mental health condition, but it will turn into one if we don’t work on it,” Crowe adds. “Coping is an important thing to think about, and coping in ways that work for you. … Working long hours, vicarious trauma, empathy fatigue: These are all things that are part of a counselor’s job. All of that will build and build and build to levels of burnout. We need to build in a wellness plan and coping strategies.”

Fanning the flames

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” Many things can cause burnout, but being isolated or feeling unsupported at home or at work can be major contributors, as can the repetition of facing the same challenges or doing similar tasks over and over.

Every job situation will come with varying degrees of stress and frustration that ebb and flow. Burnout, however, is more than that. It is an all-encompassing feeling that you are being pulled in every direction at once and that no matter what you do, you are unable to make progress or move forward. If chronic burnout is left unmanaged, it can lead to issues with physical and mental health.

The onset of burnout feels different for each individual. In both clients and practitioners, it can take a healthy dose of self-awareness to recognize the red flags that indicate they are experiencing something more than day-to-day stress.

Pedigo, the clinical director at Aspire Human Services, a program for clients with intellectual disabilities in southeastern Idaho, says that one of her first signs of burnout is finding that she doesn’t want to stay for the full length of staff meetings. It indicates that she is becoming disengaged and having trouble being present, she says.

Another signal is when she finds herself turning down invitations from colleagues to go out to lunch. She knows it would be good for her to step out and take time away from the office, “but it feels like I can’t even take a minute to do that. … I feel like I have a million other things to do,” Pedigo observes. “I’m always thinking of what’s next, what’s next, what’s next. That’s when I know I need to take time to slow down, take a break and return refreshed.”

Another indicator of burnout in clients and counselors can include feeling a perpetual sense of self-disappointment — that no matter what you do, you are always falling short, says Erin M. West, an LPC and licensed school counselor. “It’s that sense of being overwhelmed — that you have too much on your plate and not enough time to feel like you’re doing a good job in all of your roles or [to take] a sense of pride in the work you’re doing. It can be demoralizing and defeating,” says West, a lecturer in the school counseling and clinical mental health counseling programs at the University of Texas at Tyler.

In general, burnout is a constant feeling of being at the end of your rope, she says. It can manifest in physical symptoms such as feeling fatigued or exhausted, crying easily, having trouble sleeping and becoming emotional over things that wouldn’t normally affect you.

Similarly, people experiencing burnout who are normally easygoing might find themselves feeling more angry or sad than usual and struggling to make decisions out of a fear of making the wrong choice, Pedigo says. People wrestling with burnout may also become more susceptible to getting sick and take longer to recover when they come down with something.

Another potential indicator of burnout is inflexibility of thought, Pedigo adds. In clients, this may manifest as resistance to ideas that a counselor suggests in session. For practitioners, it might show up as a reluctance to refer or to seek help with a challenging client and resistance to feedback, Pedigo says. This can shut down the creative process, “and new, fresh thought just doesn’t happen as easily,” she adds.

Pedigo regularly checks her reactions to the feedback she receives from colleagues. If she finds herself taking the feedback personally or disagreeing reflexively, it can be a sign that she is feeling overwhelmed and “focused on me more than the greater issue,” she says.

Another red flag for practitioners is disengaging in session with clients, West says. “It’s that feeling of sitting with a client and having them talk to you, and in your mind, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what this person just said.’ You realize after a period of time that you’ve been thinking about something else and you’ve missed what the client has said. Or it may be noticing that things your client is doing or saying are irritating you more than usual. You might notice that you’re putting a lot of blame on clients for not making progress instead of asking ‘What is my role? How can I help?’” explains West, who co-authored a 2016 Journal of Counseling & Development article on stress and burnout in counselor educators.

When counselors realize that they’re not being fully present in a client session, it is “just a horrible feeling. … The whole reason for getting into counseling is to help others with the weight they’re carrying. It can feel really defeating if you’re not able to do that,” West says.

 

Playing with fire

Counselors who are detaching from their work and not taking steps to address burnout (or missing its indicators) are entering a danger zone rife with ethical pitfalls, says Monica Band, a certified rehabilitation counselor with a private practice in Alexandria, Virginia, who is doing clinical supervision toward an LPC. Exhaustion can lead to practitioner indifference or a cynical attitude, says Band, an ACA member and an assistant professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at Marymount University in Virginia. As a result, practitioner-client boundary issues can become blurred, and the counselor’s ability to make competent decisions or to connect and build rapport with the client can all become impaired.

Band wrote her doctoral dissertation on predictors of burnout in first responders and law enforcement chaplains. She will co-present an education session on that topic at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta later this month with Lisa Jackson-Cherry, a professor and counseling department chair at Marymount and coordinator of the university’s pastoral clinical mental health counseling program.

“[Burnout] can be a fog over our lens because we’re not taking care of ourselves. It hits at a cognitive level, where we’re not able to make culturally competent, ethical decisions [as counselors]. We might not even be in the right headspace to choose which intervention will help our client,” says Band, president-elect of the Virginia Counselors Association. “Unfortunately, burnout gets so bad that we internalize it. Our boundaries get blurred, and we can turn to advice giving instead of giving competent care. It can turn into countertransference issues, which can create an unsafe environment for our clients.”

The prevention of burnout — and the commitment to seek help if it occurs — is both a best practice and an ethical mandate for professional counselors. The introduction to Section C (Professional Responsibility) of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics includes a statement that “counselors engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities.” Standard C.2.g. instructs counselors to continually monitor themselves for professional impairment and to seek assistance if they recognize that they are impaired.

Rising from the ashes

A good first step for counselors who realize that they’re in the throes of burnout is to acknowledge it and to talk about it with a trusted colleague, such as a supervisor, Pedigo says. She acknowledges that being vulnerable and sharing such a difficult issue is extremely hard, but she believes that putting the problem into words can be helpful. In part, that’s because counselors struggling with burnout will discover that many of their colleagues have been through the same issue at some point.

When a counselor is burned out, “it feels pretty crummy to be there, but there is power [in admitting] it,” Pedigo says. “For me, it minimizes the isolation [of burnout] to bring in more people who will give good advice and love me anyway.”

Likewise, counselors can begin to address burnout in clients by normalizing their experience. Counselors can offer a listening ear, assure clients that burnout is a common issue that many people go through and let them know that they can take steps to manage it, Pedigo says.

“Sometimes, what [clients] need the most is one person in their life with whom they can share that they’re feeling this way,” she says. “For example, as a parent, it’s difficult to admit that you’re struggling and that it’s hard. You love your kids, but you are at the end of your rope. Be the person [clients] can share that with.”

In addition to engaging in therapeutic work with clients, Pedigo suggests that counselors connect them to resources outside of the counseling office that they can trust. This might include support groups and social or nonprofit organizations that focus on areas with which a client is struggling, such as career development or family and parenting issues.

Counselors can also assist clients struggling with burnout to connect the dots between their symptoms and the root of the problem, Band notes. This often involves helping them recognize that stress and burnout at work can spill over into their home life and relationships — and vice versa.

“Show them that these things are not in separate categories. We know that as counselors, but our clients might not know that,” Band says. “Connect the physical exhaustion they are feeling with the relational pieces to create congruence. While they might feel helpless and feel like they can’t get anything done, it’s not them or something they’re doing. It’s broader and feeding into other things. It’s not their fault. It’s all the dimensions that are weighing and feeding off of each other to make them feel that way.”

One possible antidote to burnout, both in counselors and clients, is change, says Crowe, an associate professor in the counselor education program at East Carolina University and president of the North Carolina Counseling Association. That often means getting creative to keep things fresh and changing up routines.

As a counselor educator, Crowe tries to rotate the classes she teaches so that she isn’t repeatedly covering the same material and subject matter. Other ideas she suggests to counselor educators to add variety include picking up a different project that doesn’t involve teaching and looking for short-term studies or teaching opportunities abroad. For practitioners, change might involve developing a new specialty, starting a new therapy group or trying something new such as consulting work, Crowe suggests.

Pedigo found herself confronting burnout when her caseload consisted entirely of individual clients. She worked with colleagues to switch and share tasks, and now she leads team meetings, co-facilitates a group and provides supervision, in addition to still seeing individual clients.

With clients, Pedigo suggests that counselors switch up the tools they use in session (she is a fan of using humor, when appropriate) or simply offer a change of scenery. For instance, meet in a different office or room, or take the session outside.

“Be a little more active in session, try a different intervention or even just change where you sit in the room,” Pedigo says. “Try and be more flexible — that’s the goal.”

Fire prevention

When it comes to avoiding burnout, self-care is the first thought that pops into many counselors’ minds. Indeed, unplugging from social media, engaging in creative hobbies, exercising, meditating, participating in spiritual activities, getting together with others socially and carving out some alone time are all helpful action steps to take. However, the avoidance of burnout often requires a comprehensive approach that touches on both individual and organizational levels. This can involve everything from counselors initiating staff retreats or mentorship programs at their practices to downloading mindfulness apps for their smartphones and stocking their offices with their favorite CDs, tea selections and an aromatherapy diffuser. Most important, however, is for counselors to engage in anti-burnout measures before they start feeling overwhelmed or chronically stressed.

Burnout can affect both individuals and entire counseling programs, Pedigo says. She recently collaborated with colleagues to address this issue at her program by organizing staff training to identify and prevent professional burnout. The initiative assisted in improving the culture at the practice for both counselors and administrative staff, she says. Pedigo will touch on this experience in an education session titled “Burnout: Working With Challenging Clients” at this month’s ACA Conference & Expo in Atlanta. She will be co-presenting with Jason Byrd and James Osborne, her colleagues from Aspire Human Services.

Part of the practice’s focus on burnout is to reinforce the idea that prevention is an ongoing and continuous process, not just something that happens during vacations and on weekends, Pedigo says. “We try to focus on self-care every day so that it’s a part of our routine in our personal lives and here at our office,” she explains. “It’s much healthier to just enjoy your day with built-in things that are going to keep you well than to hold everything in for a ‘miracle trip’ or an event in the distance to help keep you well. When we’ve seen others do that — and have experienced that ourselves — we’ve noticed that it isn’t as effective and doesn’t promote a healthy lifestyle. It’s just a fix until your next fix.”

Comprehensive burnout prevention needs to come from the top down at counseling practices and school and college programs, agrees Crowe. Counselors who are supervisors, managers or heads of programs can promote healthy behaviors to break the cycle of burnout.

“Have your employees leave or hit the gym during their lunch hour and take their vacation days. Make sure they leave by 5 p.m. and don’t eat lunch at their desks,” Crowe says. “Have workshops that talk about stress, balance and other issues. You can do as much as you can individually [to avoid burnout], but if a system is not wellness-oriented, then it will be a bad cycle. We have to think systemically about how to do that.”

“We have to be advocates to move toward that system-level change. We have to talk about it when things aren’t doable,” she continues. “Think critically about whether the setting you’re in is promoting healthy behaviors. If not, advocate for yourself about making changes. [For school counselors,] speak to your principal to have a training or a wellness-related professional development, or to change a policy or expectation in your workplace.”

Crowe previously worked at a practice with numerous practitioners, including LPCs, psychologists and marriage and family therapists. The program’s weekly staff meetings offered invaluable opportunities to debrief with colleagues and destress, she says. Staff members would break into small groups to go over case studies and talk through the challenges they were facing.

“There were times when the clinician might break into tears when presenting a particularly sad or difficult case. Talking it through and sharing it with other practitioners was helpful,” Crowe says. “It was so wonderful [to] get feedback and support from colleagues. That three-hour meeting was our time to come together.”

West adds that supervisors working with new counselors in practicum should make sure to discuss the risks of burnout early and often. As a counselor educator, West suggests to her students that they begin a self-care routine as they start their master’s program, before things get too stressful. This is especially needed for those who have things going on outside of school, such as managing a family, navigating life transitions or being involved in other commitments, she says.

“There is a fear, particularly among young practitioners, that if they speak out, it means they’re not a good counselor or will get fired. That’s a real shame because problems develop when we stop creating the space to be able to talk about them,” West says. “I try to always ask supervisees, ‘How is your work with this client impacting you personally?’ Create an environment where they aren’t afraid to say how things are affecting them. [Experiencing stress and burnout] doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad counselor. It happens to all of us, so let’s talk about it and how to handle it.”

Learning to rely on a support system of trusted people, both professionally and personally, can also help clients who are at risk of burnout, West notes. Counselors might suggest that clients take breaks during the workday to visit with colleagues who are supportive and with whom they can chat, briefly, about nonwork topics. Outside of work, clients could be encouraged to identify friends and family members who have been through similar experiences. Counselors can also suggest that clients create their support systems not based solely on who they think should be included (for example, family members), but based on “those who are genuinely a support and beneficial to your life,” West says.

Crowe says she sometimes gets the support she needs by meeting with friends who do not work in a similar profession to hers. That way, there is less temptation to “talk shop,” she says.

Counselors also shouldn’t hesitate to engage in personal counseling themselves, Crowe urges, both preventively and when they are feeling overwhelmed. “Your willingness to get support will contribute to your longevity on the job and to being able to cope with the demands of being a counselor in today’s world,” she says.

“We are supposed to be the strong ones, psychologically,” she adds. “We are supposed to be in touch with ourselves and are taught in our [master’s] programs that you’ve got to be OK with yourself before you help someone else. But the reality is, life happens. If you’re going to be a counselor for 30 years, you need to feel very comfortable in getting support when life happens.”

Fireproofing

As important as creativity, getting outdoors, spending time with loved ones and other go-to self-care methods may be, it is the intentionality behind them that is key, West says.

“It sounds small, but it’s the idea that you’re taking time away from your desk to do something that you find enjoyable,” West says. “Be intentional: I am actively making a choice, in this moment, to do something that is enjoyable to me, even if it’s something as simple as lighting a candle.”

In a similar vein, Pedigo finds it helpful to remind herself to focus on the aspects of her work that are particularly meaningful to her, such as the adventure-based counseling that her agency provides. She makes it a priority to go on at least one adventure-based outing with clients each month, even though her position does not require it.

Make time for “whatever grounds you,” Band urges.

When discussing burnout with clients, counselors shouldn’t neglect the topic of spirituality, Band says. Research shows that spirituality can buffer against stress, and focusing on the greater sense of purpose that spirituality can offer may be comforting for many clients.

“The conversation is worth having when you’re talking about burnout,” Band says. “Spirituality can really impact the well-being of your clients, giving them a greater sense of purpose and life satisfaction. Having a spiritual attitude, and the idea that there’s a connectedness to life, and a search for the sacred and belonging — that can help build resilience and boost posttraumatic growth. The idea of being able to make meaning out of something bigger can help people persevere through difficult moments in life.”

However, Band cautions, counselors shouldn’t bring up spirituality with clients out of the blue. Those discussions should be reserved for clients who have mentioned their own spirituality in previous sessions or on an intake form.

With clients who value spirituality, Band suggests asking them to talk about how it has helped them through challenging situations in the past. Counselors should discuss spirituality in whatever terms the client uses, Band says. For example, if they call it a relationship with God, ask them how that relationship has changed as they became stressed and overwhelmed: How is it now, and how would they like it to be?

“[Spirituality’s] continuous search for meaning and purpose in a client’s life, and an appreciation of the depth of it, that will get to the very crux of where your clients are in seeking meaning and purpose, which directly relates to burnout,” Band says. “If we’re able to understand their spirituality and check in on it, we’re able to directly connect to their burnout experience.”

Burning bright

Avoiding burnout can be a career-long challenge and a constantly moving target for many counselors. The coping mechanisms and self-care practices that counselors find helpful are likely to vary at different phases of their career.

“It will take time to figure out what works for you, and it will change over time,” West says. “Be reflective, reevaluate and be willing to change.”

The first things that seem to slip when people feel overwhelmed are the very things that could be most helpful, such as taking time to exercise or to cook a healthy meal for dinner, Crowe notes. “What matters is getting back on the horse and realizing when you’ve let stuff go,” she says. “Tell yourself that it’s OK to leave at 5 p.m. or to take a lunch break.”

However, maintaining a perfect work-life balance is a misconception and an unrealistic expectation, West says. She often tells her counseling students that finding balance is a lifelong pursuit and, indeed, “something that I am continually working on as well.”

“Life is stressful,” West says. “No matter how much we try to remove ourselves from stressful environments, the truth of the matter is that stressful things will always happen in life.” At the same time, cultivating a healthy support system and maintaining good patterns of self-care can protect us from becoming overwhelmed to the point of burnout when those stresses do occur.

The key is making burnout prevention a priority, West says. As the adage goes: You can’t pour from an empty cup.

“So much of it comes down to choice. Setting an intention and telling yourself that you want to take active steps [to avoid burnout] doesn’t mean you’re a selfish person. It means you’re not compromising yourself and you care about your own quality of life,” West says. “Just because I decide to take time for myself and that I matter, that doesn’t mean I’m a bad counselor. In fact, it means that you’re taking steps to be the best you can be. You have to be the focus sometimes, and that doesn’t mean you’re a selfish person.”

 

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Related resources

Counseling Today and CT Online (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Counselor Self-Care by Gerald Corey, Michelle Muratori, Jude T. Austin II & Julius A. Austin (newly released by ACA)

ACA Conference & Expo

  • Numerous sessions will be presented on burnout, self-care and other professional issues at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo, being held this month (April 26-29) in Atlanta. Find out more and search for sessions via topic at counseling.org/conference/atlanta-2018.

 

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Kids can burn out too

When counselors think of the populations most susceptible to burnout, law enforcement personnel and first responders, helping professionals, single parents, and adults living with mental illness or in poverty might come to mind. But children can burn out just as easily as adults, says Erin M. West, a licensed professional counselor and licensed school counselor who teaches in the school counseling and clinical mental health counseling programs at the University of Texas at Tyler.

In today’s modern age, children are often overscheduled, being involved in everything from extracurricular sports and after-school activities to pre-college prep work. This pace can lead to burnout — the symptoms of which adults may misinterpret as behavioral problems.

“Kids just need time to play and engage in unstructured activities and even sit in boredom,” West says. “A lot of times, when kids start to get overscheduled, you can start to see behavioral issues because they don’t have time to play and relax. Instead of viewing it as burnout, it’s often viewed as disruptive behavior.”

Often, children are given little control over their schedules. Counselors can help remedy the situation by educating parents that play is, in fact, a way for children to learn, West says. Parents are typically just trying to do what they feel is best for their children and may not realize that packing their schedules full of activities can have unanticipated consequences.

When families’ schedules are lightened, it can often lessen parents’ feelings of burnout as well, West notes. Counselors “can help change the perception that involving your kids in a gazillion activities doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing more for their mental, physical and intellectual growth than [if they did] one activity per week,” she says.

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her
at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.