Becoming a professional mental health counselor can be a rewarding career. The opportunity to help individuals who struggle with home, life or substance abuse with expressing emotions and correcting behaviors in a healthy way draws many talented minds to the field. However, the profession is known to be demanding, both physically and mentally. Practicing long clinical hours with any number of different clients who present myriad issues and symptoms can be draining. The personal nature of the relationship between client and counselor also means that emergency visits will need to be arranged or calls will need to be taken when not on the clock.
Counselors must be prepared with strategies to preserve the well-being of their own mental and physical health. It’s important to remember that counselors are people with families, mortgages and even struggles of their own. Counselors need to make time for their own personal lives and achieve a measure of work-life balance that enables working counselors to maintain a successful clinical life and a healthy home life.
Achieving balance is easier said than done in many respects. Counselors feel a deep sense of duty and professional responsibility to their clients, and even the best-laid plans for leisure time or to reflect may be interrupted or hard to keep. Still, counselors have ways to practice the same habits and activities they’d recommend to clients. It may take time to balance the scales of professional and personal life, so the important thing is to keep at it and always be honest with yourself.
Know the signs of burnout
Intensive workloads, the kind counselors are familiar with, tend to wear on individuals who experience the unique pressure and stress involved in the counseling of others. . Burnout, the dreaded ultimate fatigue, is not uncommon among mental health professionals who exhaust their mental, emotional and physical capacities to care for and treat clients on a day-to-day basis. Fortunately, research has found that clinical mental health counselors have lower levels of burnout when compared to other mental health disciplines. Awareness of the signs of burnout will help counselors establish and maintain healthy habits to prevent deep dissatisfaction that can negatively affect clients, career longevity and familial relationships.
Along with more recognizable symptoms such as lack of desire to go to work, decreased motivation or increased cynicism, burnout can occur in counselors in more subtle ways that often manifest in interactions with clients or family. Becoming distracted with personal problems while in a session with a client — and conversely, wondering about a client’s situation while at a social function — may be indicative of an imbalance, which could lead to eventual burnout as counselors drain their emotional and empathetic stocks. Demonizing clients is something every counselor is consciously abhorrent of, but this can occur. And when it does, the situation can be difficult for counselors to notice or correct if in a state of overwrought physical and mental exertion.
Set boundaries, but maintain flexibility
Sometimes, counselors need to be able to say no, which can be particularly challenging when working with clients who struggle with excessive dependency and consequently push boundaries. Conversations with clients that establish clear expectations and roles from the beginning of any counseling relationship is reflective of following best practice. One of many important benefits of monitoring counselor/client boundaries is the increased likelihood that counselors will remain mindful of personal priorities and self-care. Maintaining a healthy respect for boundaries is an investment in the counselor’s personal and professional lives.
Boundaries don’t have to be so inflexible as to preclude any sort of room for adapting or schedule tweaking. Building flexible time into your schedule is a best practice that ensures that time is reserved for you. This flex time can be used as you want or shifted to when it’s needed most.
Flex time relates not only to structuring professional commitments (e.g., counselors must bend schedules if a crisis requires their immediate attention) but also to meeting personal and family commitments. “Whatever work-family balance you establish, give yourself some wiggle room,” Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and mother of four children, told the American Psychologist Association Practice Organization. “Things come up: kids get sick, deadlines loom, new opportunities come up, spouses change jobs. … Your work-family balance should involve enough flexibility that you can respond to these normal but unpredictable events without driving yourself into the ground.”
Exercise or meditate
Counselors are often the first to advise their clients to practice healthier habits. Counselors are also likely to brush sage advice aside when it comes to their own lives. Yet, taking just 15 to 30 minutes a day to exercise or practice some kind of inward reflection can have marked effects in improving mood. Exercise has the double benefit of helping generate gains in physical as well as mental shape. When out for a run, counselors can get some time alone to prepare for their day or think about something that’s been nagging at them with a clearer mind.
Remember, exercise doesn’t begin and end with running a mile or two a day. Countless other forms of physical exertion also are possibilities to consider — from more intensive efforts like spin class to less demanding options like swimming, yoga, taking the stairs and even posture exercises. It’s important to find a type of sustainable exercise that you enjoy.
Meditation fits in here, as well. Although not necessarily an exercise of physical feats, meditation’s effects can be just as soothing and positive for counselors, who may recommend such thoughtfulness to their own clients. Similar to exercise, proper meditation does not require you to be of any advanced level: Closing your eyes in a darkened room for 15 minutes and letting all the hectic thoughts flush away as you focus on a single question or mantra can help center your mind. Meditation will also increase cognitive flexibility that is decreased when you’re stressed. Reserving time for exercise or self-reflection in a daily schedule is important, as counselors need to pursue their own self-care.
Take a vacation
Americans leave some 658 million vacation days unused each year, according to Project Time Off. The national culture of work is strong but also seen as increasingly inflexible and ultimately damaging to workers’ physical and mental health. Evidence clearly shows that limited time off is associated with burnout risk. These findings apply to the general workforce as well as to counselors. Counselors should practice what they preach by taking time off. The importance of time away applies to both counselors in independent private practice and those who are employees.
Counselors must be able to separate work from life. How can there be balance when one continually infringes on the other? Counselors and clients have intimate relationships, and separation may not be easy to handle for either. But, all relationships need a little maintenance, and taking a vacation with family or friends can provide a much-needed respite from the confines of the office, not necessarily the client.
Have a support network
No counselor is an island, and working professionals need companionship. Having a support network drawn from all spheres of life (family, friends, colleagues, peers, etc.) will ensure a counselor has someone to depend and lean on. Loved ones can do their own part to help counselors get through whatever obstacle they are facing. If a counselor is having trouble getting a client to open up, consultation with a qualified mental health peer is an example of tapping into a support network. Spending time with family or friends will often help distract from the complexities of work, which is another advantage of a strong support network.
Counselors taping into their peer network and family relationships can also help guard against the aforementioned burnout. Sometimes, counselors need to be on the other side of the proverbial coin and have someone else listen to their own inner thoughts. These informal, or sometimes formal, arrangements can be healthy avenues for expression that helps alleviate the burden counselors face. Something as simple as taking a deep breath when anxiety or self-doubt creeps in can be another effective way to deal with the stressors inherent in counseling work.
Counselors looking to network within the field more should consider joining a professional association. The American Counseling Association is the most well-known of these counseling-specific societies, but other groups exist for particular specialties and settings, such as:
- Counselors for Social Justice
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists
- Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling
- American School Counselor Association
- The Association for Humanistic Counseling
Joining a professional association can open counselors to new professional opportunities, schools of thought and interprofessional collaborators who may engage across societal lines.
Practice time management at Bradley University
Time management is needed throughout the professional life of a counselor and especially when pursuing a graduate degree. Bradley University’s counseling students are familiar with the importance of a proper work-life balance. The majority of Bradley’s students are successful professionals who work full-time, have family responsibilities and decided to earn a graduate degree in counseling from an accredited program. When pursuing advanced education, such as a Master of Arts in Counseling, taking time to research which online program is most suited to work-life balance is critical to a long, successful and satisfying career.
Interested individuals can consider Bradley University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling program when looking for options. Contact an enrollment advisor today to learn more about the program’s curricula and how it could fit in your professional and personal lives.