As I was listening to the radio, the song, “You Give Love a Bad Name” came on just before I pulled into the school parking lot.  I don’t know why this came to my mind, but I thought it was sad that the

Bon Jovi had a bad relationship

singer’s perception of love was skewed by one bad relationship. That evening, I had a conversation with a colleague from another school who asked me what school counselors really do? As I got ready to explain all the good things counselors do in schools, she added that she only saw her school counselors sitting in their offices on the computer.  Then the fatal blow came to our professional reputation when she told me that many of the students saw little need to go in to see their school counselor (sigh).  At that moment, the lyrics of Bon Jovi’s song became real to me as I could easily change the lyrics to, “You Give School Counselors a Bad Name.” How tragic that my colleague saw little value in having counselors in her school and she had barely even talked to one in the seven years that she worked in that school.  As I was thinking about our conversation, I wondered why those counselors had become a liability instead of an asset at school?  I think one of the biggest reasons for the ineffectiveness of school counselors may be burnout.

What is School Counselor Burnout?

Did you know that the average productive working career of a school counselor is 10 years?  Also, researchers have found that 30 to 66 percent of counselors experience burnout? When I read these statistics, I was shocked! According to the research of Bulent Gunduz, people who suffer burnout are often idealists who feel they need to accomplish their goals by pulling more than their own weight.  When school counselors fail to meet their ideals, they develop a diminished sense of confidence in

We need the school counselor now!!

their own abilities and expect little reward for their efforts. Because school counselors often feel they have little value in the workplace or control over their working environment, burnout can occur.   Since the 1960s, expectations to serve students and families have increased for school counselors, but  workloads have failed to decrease.  In the graphic below, one can see how the school counseling workload has continued to expand each decade.

In this age of high work loads, large numbers of students, marginalization, ineffective counselor/principal relationships, job stress, and role ambiguity, we can become a doomed species! 
As a result of these continued workloads, stress builds and counselors either adjust or self destruct. Now, let’s see some disturbing examples of counselors who may be experiencing burnout.
 Source: The Importance of Counselor Self-Care
Examples of Counselor Burnout
At a school in New Jersey, twenty percent of the graduating class reported that their counselor told them they had to take a freshman biology class to graduate two months before the ceremony.  When asked about the incident, the counselor said that it was not her fault because she was forced to move offices which caused her to misplace her documents from three years ago (o-k-a-y!).

At a school in Texas, a middle school counselor allegedly made racist comments on the school Facebook account after a disagreement with a colleague at school.  The counselor claimed that the account was hacked.

At a school counselor meeting in one particular school, a counselor who has been in the profession for over 20 years, constantly complained about her students and all the work she had to do everyday.  The complaints were so bad that no one wanted to sit by her at meetings.

A colleague asked the school counselor to check on a student who was upset; however, the counselor said that he didn’t know the student.  Without saying another word, he goes back to the computer screen.

A school counselor was busy working on a presentation that was due in six months for a national conference. Her students felt that she was too busy to see them so they decided to go see another counselor.  When the school counselor found out that her students were going to see another counselor, she stopped talking to her colleague.

A school counselor took on an additional job as a coach.  The counselor was so busy coaching that she missed several parent conferences that her colleagues must cover.

The lead counselor at a school refused to assist her colleague with a school sponsored career fair.  When her colleague arranged lunch for the volunteers, the lead counselor gave her peer helpers permission to eat the lunch before the volunteers arrived. When confronted, the counselor said that it was a department sponsored lunch so everyone in the department had a right to participate.

Reasons for Burnout

When school counselors experience burnout or the feeling of exhaustion and depersonalization, bad behavior often follows.  In fact, the act of caring to the point that you are drained of empathy is a real problem for people in our profession.  This draining of empathy often occurs after school counselors spend a lot of energy caring for others over a long period of time.  Researchers have coined this type of burnout as compassion fatigue or secondary PTSD.

Source: Counselor Burnout

How do you know when you or a colleague is experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue? When looking at burnout in school counselors, Michael Nobles found there are four distinct stages:

Stage 1
Are you or your colleagues always available to families or students?  Also, do you or your colleagues tend to over-identify with students? For instance, a school counselor may fail to eat lunch, miss family events, or begin to think about students constantly (even in their dreams). 
Stage 2
Are you or a your colleagues realizing that you are working way too much and making the decision to reduce the time on your job?  After this reduction in commitment,  have you started to feel discontented or stagnate in your job?
Stage 3
Have you or a colleague felt frustrated with your job, become less tolerant of others, or failed to sympathize with your students. Have you started to avoid students or withdrawn emotional or physically from work?
Stage 4
Finally, have you or a colleague become listless and apathetic? Have you found yourself sitting in the office all day, failing to see students on a regular basis, and even starting to miss work?

When burnout is allowed to continue without self care or help, it can have negative implications on students, colleagues, and our personal lives.  Some of the immediate dangers include: little interest in work, impaired relationships with your colleagues and students, and even physical and emotional withdrawal from work (i.e. missing copious days of work or hanging out all day in your office at the computer). 

I volunteer as a Disaster Mental Health Counselor with Red Cross and we carefully watch out for each other. If a worker is too stressed, we immediately have to pull them from their post because they become a liability to the client and to our organization. To prevent yourself or a colleague from becoming a liability,The American Counselor Association Code of Ethics states that counselors should “engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing to meet their professional responsibilities”.  In other words, you have an ethical responsibility to take care of yourself!!

School Counselor Self Care Tips

In an article about self care, Susan Hansen made a great list of suggestions for school counselors to avoid burnout.

1.  Form a relationship with a trusted colleague to talk to when you are frustrated or having a bad day.  In fact, I have several trusted colleagues that I talk to depending on the situation. It is important that these conversations are kept confidential.

2.  Ask for help, support, or ideas when you face a problem.  It is so important to consult with others before making a decision when you are unsure of the answer or get another counselor to help when you are overwhelmed with a situation.  The other day I was dealing with a situation in which I did not have a clear answer and I began to feel overwhelmed.  After I calmed down, I  consulted with a colleague in my department who was able to help me problem solve to make the right decision! .

3.  Okay, this should be the easiest one to do, but I actually find this to be the hardest for me…EAT LUNCH everyday! Why is eating lunch such a hard activity for many of us?  It is because we are often too busy taking care of others’ needs before our own.

4.  I am not sure if I can do this, but I think it is a great suggestion.  Leave all your work at work.

5.  Work within your Circle of Influence, the amount of work you can accomplish in one day, week, month, or year, rather than your Circle of Need or all the people who need your help.  I am getting better at this, but I have to remind myself that I can only do so much each day.

6.  Practice self talk!  Always a great practice!!

7.  Don’t get pulled into negative conversations or complaining.  This is so easy to do and something that I have to regularly to remind myself to stay out of especially when I am in a bad mood.

8.  Do some things that you love and make you feel refreshed. My go to place is the gym…without exercise I get cranky and I am hard to live with at work and at home.

9.  Get your adequate rest.

Do you think you may have burnout?  Take a quiz and find out!!

Burnout Quiz

Compassion Fatigue Assessment
Psychology Today: Compassion Fatigue

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