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Keeping Burnout at Bay​​​​

Counseling can be a rewarding experience, fostering pride in your ability to help clients overcome life’s most difficult challenges. Indeed, the ethical obligations of the profession stipulate that counselors put the needs of their clients ahead of the needs of others, including their own. 

Of course, counseling has its downside. Listening to clients express feelings of distress can zap your ability to be empathetic. Understanding the importance of heeding your own needs will help you provide the best possible treatment to your clients, avoid liability and keep burnout at bay.

Be alert to signs of stress

Most counselors realize stress is an inherent part of their work and manage it well the majority of the time. But any additional stressor, such as an illness in the family or an extra volunteer commitment, can upset the balance. Whether the stress builds gradually or is an acute reaction to a secondary trauma, you could reach a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.1 

Failing to find a healthy form of release can lead to disrupted sleep, depression, overeating or substance abuse. Without appropriate relief, you may become increasingly anxious and begin to alienate yourself from family and friends. Some counselors are even tempted to leave the profession.1 

The impact of excessive stress on your work can also be severe. Counselors experiencing burnout can become so detached that they overlook signs and symptoms of serious mental illness in their clients, for example. That not only endangers clients, it puts the counselor at legal risk. Being aware of the pressures you face and vigilant in recognizing your own signs of stress is crucial. You may have a hard time concentrating on your work or develop unrealistic expectations, a hallmark of a type of burnout known as compassion fatigue.2 That can lead to a dangerous tendency to push clients to resolve issues before they’re ready.

Other common indicators of stress buildup are more personal. You may find yourself abandoning an established exercise regimen, avoiding colleagues and neglecting family and friends. Some counselors have found, in fact, that the people closest to them are the first to notice a change in their attitude or behavior. If that happens to you, heed your loved one’s words of caution and develop an outlet for your stress. 

Allow time for self-care

That outlet could be something as simple as setting aside some time every day to recharge your batteries by taking a walk, meditating or reading something unrelated to your work. A restful getaway can be a great way to get started, even if all you can manage is a single night. 

Consider immersing yourself in a hobby or activity. Spend meaningful time with family and friends. Join a club or take a nonprofessional class. If you can’t seem to find time for these activities, consider looking closely at your caseload to see whether you can adjust your schedule to relieve some of the burden.

Find a source of support

Many counselors find a support system to be invaluable in avoiding burnout and the associated risks. That may be in the form of ongoing or intermittent counseling or a peer support group, organized through your professional organization or at your workplace. If you are new to the field, look for a mentor who can help you recognize and defuse stress and offer professional advice. But remember that counseling veterans also need support from time to time and should not be shy about asking for help.

Using the resources available to you can help you cope with the demands of your profession. Besides helping you keep your clients on track and lowering your liability risk, self-care and support could help you regain the deep sense of satisfaction that led you to choose a helping profession in the first place.


1. Stebnicki, M. A. “Stress and grief reactions among rehabilitation professionals: Dealing effectively with empathy fatigue.” Journal of Rehabilitation. January-March 2000. (20 Oct. 2003)./print.html

2. Weiss, G. G. 2003. Do you care too much? Medical Economics, 80(10), 64.

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