Tonight I was reading some posts on Facebook from fellow school counselors who were venting about all the stress and pressure they were facing at the end of the year.  The most common complaints were about failing seniors, angry teachers who lost their planning time due to being pulled for testing, lost counseling time due to non-counseling duties, inconsiderate parents, clueless administrators, and just being generally overworked.  Reading their posts, reminded me of a conversation I had with a first year counselor at one of our high schools. As the counselor and I were talking about one of her failing students, I suggested she call him down to talk to him about some assignments he was missing in his virtual class.  After I heard her typing on the other end,  she said… “Well, he is (fill in the teacher’s name) room and I can’t call him out of her room. If I call up there and she gives me an attitude, I am going go off on her!” I was kind of taken aback by her comments because she is generally a gentle soul, but she was just getting started! After we talked about the student, she began to vent about the behaviors of some of her colleagues;  told me that she felt exhausted and overworked;  and expressed her anticipation of summer vacation.  At the end of our conversation, I told her that she sounded really stressed and I asked her if she was getting any rest.  Her answer was not surprising to me as she told me that she not sleeping well and had a lot going on at work.  Long story short, she was experiencing the typical end of the year counselor burnout.

End of the year burn out is real!

The Overworked School Counselor: The Struggle is Real!

As school counselors, we may or may not realize that we are overworked.  In fact, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce surveyed 400 school counselors and found that counselors still face being overworked, carrying high student caseloads, performing non-counseling duties, and face the increasing emotional needs of their students. In fact, one Indiana school counselor described today’s counselors as being caught in a “No Man’s Land” because our profession lacks a defined role.  Because of this lack of definition, every school district has its own unique prescription for using its school counselors. In another article about Indiana school counselors, one of the contributors agreed that school counselors are overworked and lack enough time during the day to take care of all their responsibilities.  As school counselors, we know this to be true no matter what state we work due to increasing student ratios, increased student needs, and demanding schedules.

The comments from my counseling colleague took me back to the time I was feeling overworked and stressed.  In fact here is a excerpt from my blog back in 2013 chronicling my typical workday.

My workday begins at 7:45 am each day.  As I am walking in the door, I often have two or three students stop me to ask questions.  When I finally make it to my office door, someone is knocking on our main suite door to get in.  Some mornings, we can have 15-20 people stopping by, in a short period of 10 minutes, to pick up a transcript, ask a question, complain about a class, or ask to talk to us because they got in an argument with their parent.  As my morning starts, I am expected to check and answer all my email immediately, answer my phone or return calls promptly, come to an administrator’s office to talk to an upset student, and address parent concerns when they walk through the door.  Oh, don’t forget the emergency situations!  The suicidal student, the kid who is bullied on the bus, the kid who reveals that he or she was hit by a parent, or a student having a meltdown in the bathroom.  Often by lunch, I have seen a minimum of 15 students and parents, and made 3 classroom calls.

Forget a lunch break!! If I eat lunch at all, I eat while I am talking to a student (I often beg his or her forgiveness) or while I am running to a classroom to grab a student. Throughout the day, I am often working on spreadsheets of student failures, identifying who has not taken a standardized test, talking to a student who needs to take credit recovery in the evening, or encouraging a kid just to come to school.  By the end of the day, I can have up to three meetings (sometimes all at the same time) and then I have another 50 emails to answer before I leave.  Finally, my day ends at 5:00 pm and I pour myself in my car and head to the gym for a little self-care.  After the gym, I head home, grab a bite to eat, talk to my family, and then start making my plans for work the next day.  

Unfortunately, I was not able to sustain my frenetic work schedule. Due to the craziness of my work life, my quality of life and health began to decline.  One day I walked out of my closet frustrated that I could not wear a lot of my clothes.  Shirts were too tight, pants would not make it over my thigh, and don’t get me started on my jeans.  Urgggghhh!!!  Over the last two

Stress increases cortisol and cortisol causes weight gain!

years, I had put on over 20 pounds and I really believe it was due to stress and my insane work schedule.  In fact, I can guarantee putting in 14 hour days, working late into the night, working on the weekends, answering constant emails, assisting with testing, meeting with parents on a whim, and coordinating copious programs will have a negative effect on your body.  Therefore, I decided I had to do something because I could not afford to buy another wardrobe.

Finally,  I had to make a decision in my career: keep going or make a job change.  I won’t go into my career change here, but just know that I decided to change jobs to keep my sanity. Though I miss being present in a physical high school, right now I am happier and content being the virtual counselor!!

Recognizing When You Need a Change
First of all, we have to realize what being overworked and stressed can do to our bodies.  When we are chronically stressed, we release the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can lead to weight gain, health problems, and changes in the brain which are often linked to mental illness.  When I finally had time to go to the doctor for my check up, he asked about my sleeping patterns and told me that my cortisol levels were preventing me from sleeping and causing me to gain weight. In addition, my stress level had caused my adrenal glands, which releases cortisol, to become depleted.

Second, stress causes confusion and forgetfulness. Not only is chronic stress dangerous to your body, but it can permanently change your brain.  Scientist at the University of California at Berkeley have found that chronic stress has the ability to “flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex…” Basically, stress can shrink your prefrontal cortex causing confusion or brain fog.   I have attached a great short video for you to watch to show you how stress impacts the body and brain.

Although you may not be able to change your schedule, work load, or make a job change, there are some simple things you can do to reduce the negative impacts of stress on your body and brain.  According to Psychology Today, there are five simple ways we can reduce the negative effects of cortisol on the body.

1. Incorporate at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day in your schedule. There are lots of websites with ideas for working out.  Here are a few below:
Fitness Magazine
Health Magazine
Fitness Blender
Steady Health
Lauren Hefez Workouts

Check out this link to 50 of the best workout sites.

2.  Take time for relaxation during the day (even for short periods of time).  Professors at John Hopkins University suggest that taking 10 deep breaths can slow down your heart rate, breathing, and reduce your blood pressure.

Here is a three hour video with relaxing sounds and music.

3.  Build in social connectivity and reduce isolation.  If you do not have colleagues you can reach out to in your building or district, there are other ways to reach out to other counselors.  Check out the following resources for making connections with other professionals around the world!!

66 Top Counseling Resources

The Gift of the School Counseling Blog

Twitter Chats for High School Counselors

4.  Find ways to have fun and laugh during the day.
In case you need proof that laughter reduces stress, here is some evidence from our friends in the scientific community.

5.  Play music in your office. In fact, as I am tying this blog post, I am listening to satellite radio. 

Here are some free radio stations you may be able to access at your job:

Need more? Check out this list of over 45,000 radio stations!

6.  Get plenty of rest…6 to 8 hours of sleep a night.  Sleep is really important and I will give you 11 reasons why you need to get your rest.

  • Sleep improves your memory.
  • Sleep enhances your life expectancy.
  • Sleep curbs inflammation.  Inflammation has been linked to illnesses like diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and premature aging.
  • Sleep increases creative ideas.
  • Sleep increases your stamina.
  • Sleep helps you  to study (for those of you in graduate school).
  • Sleep sharpens your attention span.
  • Sleep helps you to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Sleep lowers your stress level. 
  • Sleep helps you to be less careless.
  • Sleeps helps prevent depression.

7.  Eat a healthy diet (watch out for stress eating)!  If you were like me, I would often miss lunch and then pig out at supper…then, there is the ice cream eating binge at 10:00 at night.  Well, no more.  I decided to start eating healthier and happy to report I am almost 20 lbs. lighter.  Here are some tips for better eating habits.

  • You have got to drink water and limit the sodas, sweet teas, juices, and lattes.  I know…I almost died when I had to give up my diet pepsi, but it was adding weight not contributing to my weight loss.
  • Eat healthy carbohydrates, not prepackaged lunches, bars, chips, etc.
  • Limit your caffeine intake.
  • Watch the starch intake as these foods turn to sugar (you know…pasta, rice, potatoes).
  • Watch your portion sizes.  For example, your portion of meat should be the size of your palm.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast every morning and don’t skip it!
  • Watch  your sugar intake and limit your dessert to once a week.  If you need a chocolate binge, eat dark chocolate. 

Well, I know this post is a little different from what I normally write; however, I felt it was important to address counselor stress as we leave one school year and start the next.  Make a commitment to take care of you because no one can do better than you!!

One additional resource:

Alternative Mental Health Treatments and Managing Stress

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