Protecting Your Mental and Physical Health to Avoid Burnout
By TaRael Kee | April 2020
As the school year comes to a close, becoming aware of the signs of burnout and protecting themselves from it is increasingly important for all school counselors. In many districts, school counselors are responsible for high caseloads, state testing, course registration and more. In years past, school counselors reported experiencing burnout at rates reaching 67 percent. Protecting yourself from burnout is an ethical decision that requires constant intentionality. According to the ASCA Ethical Standards, school counselors have a responsibility to “Monitor their emotional and physical health and practice wellness to ensure optimal professional effectiveness. School counselors seek physical or mental health support when needed to ensure professional competence.” Self-evaluation is an ongoing process as moods vary daily.
Burnout looks different for everyone, but can have a devastating impact on you, your family and the students that you care about. According to Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., many people feel physical and emotional exhaustion, experience cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Cynicism in counseling is dangerous because it can potentially lead to misdiagnosing a crisis. School counselors suffering from these symptoms can become guarded at work or even isolated at home. The signs of physical exhaustion are extensive, ranging from insomnia to anger and depression. Protecting against this downward spiral of pressure and negativity is difficult but of the utmost importance for everyone and it begins with setting firm boundaries.
Although sometimes uncomfortable, setting boundaries is necessary in school counseling. We are compassionate and empathetic in nature and for many of us, saying yes to increased workloads and extra duties feels easier. However, multiple studies indicate that counselors are at the greatest risk for burnout when they spend excessive periods of time working on duties that are not related to school counseling. Sometimes we have to “just say no” or leave that work sitting there until the next day. Staying at work for hours after school every day takes precious time away from your friends, family and, most important, yourself. When possible, leave work at work and avoid emails and work conversations outside of the school day. Personal space and down time improve your ability to serve children when you are at school.
School counselors need to take care of themselves mentally. Some counselors protect their mental health through meditation (try Headspace) and daily mantras. Others reported that listening to inspirational music and podcasts had an impact on their mental health. Multiple quantitative studies have indicated that counselors with higher self-esteem suffered burnout at lower rates. Encouraging self-talk and positive thoughts can redirect you and drive you out of dark mental spaces.
Physical health is equally important for school counselors and some achieve this through exercise and practicing healthy eating habits. Other counselors support their physical well-being with massages, facials, pedicures and other spa treatments. Maintaining your physical health is an incredible tool for refueling yourself and powering through the end of the school year. Exercise and other healthy practices can elevate your health and improve your mental well-being.
If you are uncertain whether you are suffering from burnout, many tools can help you answer this question. The internet has loads of free resources like the Burnout Self Test that serve as a quick, unscientific self-evaluation. More scientific tests are also available, like the Maslach Burnout Inventory and the Counselor Burnout Inventory. Researchers typically use these tests when evaluating the mental health of counselors. Last and perhaps most important, school counselors should not feel ashamed to seek therapy if they feel their mental health declining or just need a place to vent.
TaRael Kee is a school counselor at Collinsville High School and president-elect-elect of ISCA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.