Counselor Burnout

Preventing it, alleviating it.

Posted Jan 16, 2020

PeakPX, Creative Commons, CC 0
Source: PeakPX, Creative Commons, CC 0

I'll be 70 in June and have had 5,800 career and personal counseling clients. Yet I’m not at all burned out. I look forward to every client and rarely feel drained after a session.

Of course, what has worked for me may not work for you, but that's what I can most accurately describe, so that’s my focus here. Of course, accept, reject or adapt any of it as you see fit.

Preventing burnout

  • Don't care too much.

Before entering private practice, I was a school psychologist and came home every day exhausted. I cared too much about every student, every teacher, every parent. I got too dispirited when a child did poorly, when a teacher refused to adapt, when a parent was in denial. After three years, I quit.

Early in my private practice, I was guilty of the same thing and so, I got the same result. But slowly, merely because of time's passing, I became desensitized, less drained by clients’ plight nor as invested in their success. Ironically, that helped. I learned that empathizing too much makes you less effective, both because it burns you out and because it makes many clients feel too sad about their plight, even hopeless. In addition, my caring too much made some clients feel guilty when their progress was slow, as if they were letting me down. I still feel empathy for my clients’ problems but first unconsciously and now consciously, I remind myself that not only does maintaining a bit of an emotional barrier protect me against burnout, it makes me a more effective counselor.

  • Focus more on process than outcomes.

I focus on being present but letting go of the outcome— like how quickly a client progresses or even whether s/he did the homework s/he committed to doing. I’m no Buddhist, but Buddhism's core principle of being in the moment is key to avoiding burnout and improving effectiveness: being your competent, ethical self, and then recognizing that your efforts’ outcome is out of your control.

Sure, I’ve long tried to stay open to getting better, indeed, often soliciting feedback from clients. For example, I might ask whether a technique I tried was helpful. I’ve contacted former clients to check in on how they’re doing and ask for feedback on what in our sessions worked and didn’t. But for the most part, especially in recent years, having counseled so many people and with generally good results, I focus mainly on the process: being prepared for every session, trying to be my best self in every session and, afterwards, taking good notes. And then, I let it go.

  • Look for opportunities for brief play during sessions.

While showing the client that I take our work seriously, I look for opportunities in sessions to play, whether it’s a one-liner, a minute or two for something fun: a photo or YouTube clip our conversation triggered, my playing something short on the piano, etc. When I first started doing that, I checked with clients to see if, honestly, they felt that okay. Nearly everyone has said they appreciate it.

  • Leave cushion.

I don’t schedule clients back to back, so there’s cushion: to make up for any significant playtime, to give a client a few minutes extra if needed, plus, to allow time for fun: a hike with my doggie, to do the laundry, whatever.

  • Curate clients

If I sense I’m unlikely to significantly help a prospective client or that the person will be unduly high-maintenance, I turn down the person, as appropriate, offering a referral to a colleague. Even, on rare occasions, after a session or two, if | sense the above, I’ll tactfully encourage them to see someone else. 

What if it’s too late for prevention?

Let’s say that you’ve tried all sorts of strategies to prevent burnout, perhaps including some of the aforementioned, or some other commonly recommended burnout preventers: exercise, meditation, getting counseling, improving your skills with continuing education, or being in a case review group. Yet you still feel burned out. Here are a few other approaches that may be helpful:

  • One-on-one coaching. Observe one or more master practitioners in action (with client permission of course) and have masters observe you. The latter is particularly effective because the master’s input is individualized to you, practical, and context-specific.
  • Change your client base. All of us enjoy and are more effective with a particular type(s) of clients. Make a list of your favorite clients, past and present. Any commonalities? Type of problem, age, gender, cultural background, or sexual orientation? Should you market to get more of those clients? Should you list that specialty on your business card? Write about it? Give talks about it? Remember that marketing isn't only for people in private practice. Even if you work for an organization, let referrers know that you particularly enjoy working with a particular type(s) of clients.
  • Co-counsel?  How about teaming up with a fellow practitioner, perhaps to co-lead a group? Another example: You’re a relationship counselor whose client base is mainly heterosexual couples. If you’re a woman, might you at least occasionally, as appropriate, co-counsel with a man? That can reduce the burden on you, while getting you fresh perspectives and perhaps post-session commiseration or even laughter.

The takeaway

Therapists, counselors, and coaches, indeed most helping professionals, give a lot of themselves and are subject to burnout.  I hope you find something of value here.

I read this aloud on YouTube.