You’ve noticed several changes, both physical and mental, in one of your colleagues. You’re concerned about her drastic weight loss and have also noticed her difficulty in maintaining a conversation. This colleague currently shows a lack of focus and a lack of empathy for the students under her care, which is a drastic change from her previous commitment to her students. She has shared with you how much stress she is going through at home and at work. This stress has affected her relationship with her students, her colleagues and her family, resulting in poor professional performance.
In a profession with high demands and an ongoing expectation to meet the needs of students and their families, faculty members and administration, school counselors can often feel emotionally and physically drained. Add stress from your own family, friends and daily life and it can be difficult to balance all the demands on your time and stress in your life. Because of the multilayered demands of school counseling and the potentially devastating consequences of a school counselor’s impairment, the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors address self-care as an ethical mandate. Section E. Responsibilities to Self, encourages professional school counselors to “function within the boundaries of competence and accept the responsibility for their actions.” This professional mandate also requires school counselors to self-assess and monitor their own physical or mental health issues and seek necessary support to maintain professional effectiveness.
This ethical stipulation also states that professional school counselors “refrain from activity that may lead to inadequate professional services or diminish their effectiveness.” In the position of trust, an aspect of the school counselors’ role, each professional must be vigilant to self-care and of the impact personal impairment might have on the students and families with whom they work. This same vigilance applies to the school counselor’s own families and friends.
It has been said that self-care is not a luxury but an ethical mandate. If school counselors are working with impairment, instead of identifying any liabilities to their students’ success, a burned-out school counselor becomes the liability. Overall, as a profession, school counseling seems to provide much job satisfaction and feelings of personal accomplishment. However, this profession can also evoke a large amount of professional stress, which can lead to burnout. Contributing factors to this job stress, as identified by researchers, include role ambiguity, extraneous job assignments, interpersonal and professional conflicts, large caseloads, ineffective principal/school counselor relationship, and lack of decision-making authority. An additional issue is the discrepancy between the services that school counselors are asked to do and the services they feel most qualified to do.
The factors of burnout as identified by Christina Maslach include: emotional exhaustion indicated by depletion of affect; depersonalization, which is manifested by emotional disengagement or lack of empathy; and feelings of lacking personal accomplishment, meaning the professional no longer feels he/she is effectively contributing to others well being.
Warning signs of burnout might include ineffective handling of crisis, poor performance of professional duties or increased negativity and cynicism. Increased absenteeism, social isolation, misinterpreting those in crisis, defensive demeanor and inappropriate justification of their actions are additional indicators of professional impairment. It is clear that burnout equals impairment.
Researchers have identified that the range of school counselors who have high levels of emotional exhaustion and burnout is between 30 percent and 66 percent. With such a large number of professionals working under this level of duress, it is important that professional colleagues monitor and support their peers in assessing each other’s status. A hindrance to peer monitoring is that some school counselors function alone in their schools, and there is seldom the opportunity to ask for supervision from peers. To maintain professional effectiveness, however, it’s important that each school counselor develop an honest emotional support system on which to depend. This support system can help you maintain professional accountability regarding burnout and impairment.
It is, however, an ethical expectation that if you know a peer is operating in a manner affecting his or her job performance and students’ safety, it incumbent upon you to confront the impaired individual. This edict can be done in a caring and supportive manner; however, documentation and specific examples are encouraged.
While it is your professional duty to confront and offer support to a peer school counselor who may be suffering from burnout, it is equally essential to evaluate yourself for burnout. That self-assessment might include honest answers to these questions from Gerald Corey:
As school counselors, one of the major expectations in our jobs includes developing prevention and intervention strategies for our students. However, we can’t discount the need to develop own prevention and intervention plans for self-care.
Prevention for burnout might include such things as asking for supervision, promoting your own personal wellness plan including a method to re-fill your own emotional “bucket.” Develop your own professional and personal support system with not only those who support you but those who will challenge you if you are exhibiting signs of burnout. Periodic self-assessments and evaluation of life stressors is an important prevention strategy. Personal counseling, nurturing your own emotional self, evaluating personal relationships, engaging in stress management and positive recreational activities offers value in burnout prevention as well.
Thomas Skovholt has suggested that counseling is a form of one-way giving. Without occasional emotional replenishment for the counselor, sooner or later our resources will dry up. If we don’t support ourselves, how do we expect to be able to support others. As elusive as self-care may seem, it may ultimately be one of the most important ethical standards in our profession.
Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the co-chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact the author for references to this article.
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5/30/2011 1:57:53 PM
I'm researching "self-care" for a presentation in my ESA program. All the articles I'm finding discuss symptoms, stressors, and stress-management techniques. None seem to address resolution tips for the stressors that are most common, i.e. being asked to work outside the scope of "counselor." Am I missing something or shouldn't that be the primary objective in stress managment? Removing the stressor? I know the root causes are endemic to the field, but I wonder if counselors are so familiar with "self" management that they neglect to work on systemic problems.