Burnout and Self-Care Strategies

Self-care is an intrinsic, continuous and highly important activity performed by any professional, particularly those involved in health care. Also called the ‘inner therapy’, this practice aims to ensure that both mental and physical health of the professional is in good shape. So why is self-care for Counsellors important? Essentially, Counsellors have a clear responsibility: their clients. If a Counsellor is not mentally and physically healthy, his/her ability to provide support to clients is limited.

So what are the strategies for self-care in the counselling profession? There are many strategies which vary according to each person’s state of mind. Irrespective of the strategy being used, a Counsellor’s self-care activities are in place for a single purpose: that is, ensuring daily work stress does not result in burnout.

The Problem: Burnout

Burnout is the consequence of excessive work, stress and other related factors. Although the concept of burnout can also be applied to other contexts, for the purpose of this article we’ll stick to the work environment. Many people suffer from burnout for various reasons, and usually the problem is related to several prominent areas of an individual’s life: happiness, health, success, and others.

“Burnout is not simply excessive stress. Rather, it is a complex human reaction to ongoing stress, and it relates to feeling that your inner resources are inadequate for managing the tasks and situations presented to you. The signs and symptoms of burnout are similar to those of stress, but burnout includes an emotional exhaustion and an increasingly negative attitude toward your work and, perhaps, your life.” (Help Guide Mental Health)*

This concept is well-known in mental health disciplines, particularly counselling. For this reason, many counselling courses include the topic in their training schedule: a measurement to ensure that each prospective professional is aware of their own limitations.

Burnout in Counsellor Training: The Principles

According to Corey, “burnout manifests itself in many ways. Those who experience this syndrome typically find they are tired, drained, and without enthusiasm. They feel unappreciated, unrecognised, and unimportant, and they go about their jobs in a mechanical and routine way.” (Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy)**

Counsellor education generally introduces the concept of burnout to students, aiming to provide sound theoretical material that will help future counsellors to prevent, understand and act upon such a problem. The material commonly refers to the causes, remedies and prevention methods of burnout.

Causes

As cited previously, burnout is the result of a complex human reaction to stress. Such reaction can be so diversified among people that it would require highly advanced mathematical algorithms to actually derive all the possible cause combinations of burnout, and the influence of each of these causes. However, despite the unpredictability of individual responses to stress, there is a set of causes which are common to most people:

- Performance of repeated activities over time which seem to be insignificant; – Lack of appreciation for a certain task or overall effort at work; – Strong pressure to perform at work; – Excessive conflict in work relationships; – Lack of opportunities for expression and improvement; and – Presence of unresolved personal conflicts outside of the work environment.

Recognising such causes is the first step to understanding a series of events that may lead to burnout. The next step would involve the person’s particular responses to mental stress and their capability to recognise certain physical traits that could indicate over-stressed responses from the body.

Remedies

Burnout remedies for professional counsellors will vastly diverge between individuals. Resembling the causes, remedies are effective according to individual traits, particularly when referring to the level of stress each person can deal with.

Some people prefer to deal with their stress-related problems by increasing or decreasing certain individual activities, such as increasing the amount of time exercising and/or decreasing the amount of time working in the office. Interactive individuals may prefer to work through their issues with others, such as participating in workshops, consulting with their supervisors or simply allocating time to talk to a friend or colleague. Many Counsellors would mix individual and group activities to reduce incidence of stress and attempt to eradicate burnout.

Counsellors may also diverge in their perspectives towards stress and burnout. Some people are naturally passive and tend to surrender to their own circumstances, generally putting themselves in the position of victims. This assumption leads to feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, which increases the difficulty of dealing with stressing factors, resulting in either a delay in eliminating burnout, or increased intensity.

However, there are also Counsellors who are proactive towards stress. Such people have a different perspective towards stressful events – they recognise the individual traits which are affecting them, and actively attempt to resolve them through a mix of introspection and scenario analysis. This approach – or active stance – is desired in order to improve stress management skills and avoid burnout.

In an industry where human relationships are so intrinsically related to work, it is sometimes inevitable to experience distress and burnout. On these occasions, it is important that Counsellors effectively remediate burnout in order to invoke balance in both professional and personal lives.

Prevention It is better to prevent rather than remediate – this saying illustrates the need for preventing burnout before it happens. Most people ignore the first signs of excessive stress, and by doing so, become vulnerable to further pressure from work. At some point, Counsellors may find it very difficult to attend counselling sessions, to get to work, and to perform in several other areas of life. Preventing burnout is simply a necessary task to anyone aiming for a balanced and fulfilling career (and life).

There are several burnout prevention principles which can be divided into three categories: physical, mental and strategic.

Physical

Stress is a pattern of physiological responses which are caused by specific events in people’s lives. Such responses include an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, sugar levels and re-direction of blood flow to major organs. With such a complex set of events, it is reasonable to assume that maintaining good health will reduce the incidence of ‘undesired’ stress (distress). In fact, it is more than reasonable. Because stress causes such ‘explosive’ reactions in the body, a healthier body is vastly more capable of dealing with excessive amounts of stress than an unhealthy body.

How do you improve your health? Exercising will play the leading role in improving and maintaining a ‘healthy status’, allowing your body to be ready for the energy boost caused by stress. A balanced diet will ensure that the body has all nutrients necessary to perform daily activities, including regular stress-related responses. A balanced diet includes avoiding excessive intake of particular stress-related substances, such as caffeine and sugar.

Mental

Relaxation techniques such as imagery, meditation and breathing can at first conjure up feelings of inaction and statis. Music and introspection are also a good combination for improving the state of mind of a person. These are commonly used techniques, however any mental exercises that draw attention away from stressful events, and provide a ‘relaxed’ state to the individual, are useful. Such exercises will depend on the personal preferences of each Counsellor, and the resources that are available at the time.

Furthermore, the role of perception is extremely important in determining the health issues associated with the incidence of stress. Sometimes Counsellors perform a kind of mental ‘self mutilation’ in which they take responsibility for anything that goes wrong in a counselling session, or with a client. In this context, feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness will remain obstacles and can perpetuate to the Counsellor’s personal life. In these instances, the Counsellor needs to re-assess their perception towards certain events: you may call it a self-directed cognitive behaviour therapy.

Strategic

Probably the most prominent cause of burnout in a workplace is the inability of an individual to meet certain deadlines and achieve particular goals which are simply impossible to achieve in the first place. Applying strategy as a form of burnout prevention means ensuring that goals are achievable.

This way, Counsellors will not put themselves under unnecessary pressure. Furthermore, strategic thinking also allows individuals to recognise their personal and professional limitations, and work effectively with those limitations in order to achieve a balanced (and successful) counselling career.

Shaping a Career

In the beginning of their counselling careers, most individuals are much more sensitive to burnout than experienced Counsellors. Why is that? Because their levels of anxiety are peaking as they are about to find out whether this profession is really for them, and if they can handle their clients and support them by effectively applying the theoretical concepts they have learned.

Dealing with the normal anxieties of the first few sessions is part of the process of inner development that the counselling profession requires from all its peers. The fact that it deals with human beings, which can be vastly unpredictable, will affect the Counsellor’s confidence to some extent. The nature of a counselling session, which can have a major impact in a client’s life, also evokes doubts in the Counsellor’s mind. It is important for the Counsellor to simply recognise such doubts as a normal part of their own behaviour, and to understand the feelings which are associated with them. Beginning Counsellors can be so overwhelmed by their anxieties that they will fail to really ‘see through’ the situation. This inability to deal with a client could result in stress and possibly burnout.

Professional Insights from Counsellors

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of strategies that can help a Counsellor with self care. Each individual differentiates in the strategies used, and the need for them. Therefore, we’ve decided to get a first hand insight on burnout by asking two experienced professional Counsellors what were their opinions and strategies towards the problem.

“If there are challenges at work, talking with somebody (anybody) immediately after is called de-briefing, and may result in problematic issues not manifesting within the body and causing frustration, anger, hurt, and even illness. For difficult clients, supervision is imperative to access a mind to break the difficulties into manageable parts.

Outside of work, personally, what works for me is to have a regime of care for my body by attending a wellness centre where I involve myself in a class of Aqua Fit and Yoga every week. Massage when I can – preferably once a month or even a facial is good.

Because of Yoga, I have learned the art of switching off in a meditative mode very quickly, so the minute I walk outside of work I am in another area of life (i.e. the going home mode). I look forward to time spent with family and good friends or attending a movie and eating pop corn – to me, that is bliss. Then by the time I go back to work I feel as if I’ve been away for a week. This works really well for me – the art of deceit of your own mind.” (Kathleen Casagrande, Counsellor)

“To function effectively as a Counsellor we need to be in good shape personally – physically, mentally and emotionally. Given that, just like everyone else, we will have times of difficulty in our own lives, it is particularly important for us to recognise the danger signals and take action to deal with any undue stress quickly.

Like many of my colleagues I have a number of tried and tested remedies for keeping my life in balance. A quick fix which I can use anytime and in any stressful situation is to concentrate on my breathing rhythm and deliberately make it slower and deeper.

Listening to music is a sure-fire way for me to de-stress, as are walking on a beach, playing tennis, being out on the water or getting involved with a good book. On the subject of reading, I work on maintaining and upgrading my skills and knowledge – having confidence in one’s ability is an important element in avoiding workplace stress.

And my very favourite way to look after myself? A glass of wine on a sunny afternoon with my partner somewhere by the water.” (Wendy Mead, Counsellor)

References

  1. *Help Guide Mental Health (www.helguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm).
  2. **Corey G (1996) Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (p. 44).