Burnout, Stress and Direct Student Services Among School Counselors

Patrick R. Mullen, Daniel Gutierrez

The burnout and stress experienced by school counselors is likely to have a negative influence on the services they provide to students, but there is little research exploring the relationship among these variables. Therefore, we report findings from our study that examined the relationship between practicing school counselors’ (N = 926) reported levels of burnout, perceived stress and their facilitation of direct student services. The findings indicated that school counselor participants’ burnout had a negative contribution to the direct student services they facilitated. In addition, school counselors’ perceived stress demonstrated a statistically significant correlation with burnout but did not contribute to their facilitation of direct student services. We believe these findings bring attention to school counselors’ need to assess and manage their stress and burnout that if left unchecked may lead to fewer services for students. We recommend that future research further explore the relationship between stress, burnout and programmatic service delivery to support and expand upon the findings in this investigation.


Keywords: burnout, stress, school counselors, student services, service delivery


The American School Counselor Association (ASCA; 2012) recommends that school counselors enhance the personal, social, academic and career development of all students through the organization and facilitation of comprehensive programmatic counseling services. Delivery of student services is part of a larger framework articulated by ASCA’s National Model (2012) that also includes management, accountability and foundation components of school counseling programs. However, ASCA notes that school counselors should “spend 80 percent or more of their time in direct and indirect services to students” (ASCA, 2012, p. xii). ASCA defines indirect student services as services that are in support of students and involve interactions (e.g., referrals, consultations, collaborations and leadership) with stakeholders other than the student (e.g., parents, teachers and community members). On the other hand, direct student services are interactions that occur face-to-face and involve the facilitation of curriculum (e.g., classroom guidance lessons), individual student planning and responsive services (e.g., individual, group and crisis counseling). In either case, ASCA charges school counselors with prioritizing the delivery of student services.


As a part of their work, school counselors often incur high levels of stress that may result from multiple job responsibilities, role ambiguity, high caseloads, limited resources for coping and limited clinical supervision (DeMato & Curcio, 2004; Lambie, 2007; McCarthy, Kerne, Calfa, Lambert, & Guzmán, 2010). In addition, burnout can result from the ongoing experience of stress (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993; Maslach, 2003; Schaufeli & Enzmann, 1998) and can result in diminished or lower quality rendered services (Lawson & Venart, 2005; Maslach, 2003). While research on burnout is common in the school counseling literature (Butler & Constantine, 2005; Lambie, 2007; Wachter, Clemens, & Lewis, 2008; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006), studies have not focused on the relationship between burnout and school counselors’ service delivery. Yet, burnout has the potential to produce negative consequences for the work rendered by school counselors and could result in fewer services for students (Lambie, 2007; Lawson & Venart, 2005; Maslach, 2003). Therefore, the purpose of this research was to examine the contribution of school counselors’ levels of burnout and stress to their delivery of direct student services.


School Counselors and the Delivery of Student Services


Research on school counselors’ delivery of student services has produced positive findings. In a meta-analysis that included 117 experimental studies, Whiston, Tai, Rahardja, and Eder (2011) identified that, in general, school counseling services have a positive influence on students’ problem-solving and school behavior. Furthermore, in schools where school counselors completed higher levels of student services focused on improving academic success, personal and social development, and career and college readiness, students experienced a variety of positive outcomes, such as increased sense of belongingness, increased attendance, fewer hassles with other students, and less bullying (Dimmitt & Wilkerson, 2012). Moreover, researchers have shown that the higher occurrence of school counselor-facilitated services is beneficial for students’ educational experience and academic outcomes (Carey & Dimmitt, 2012; Lapan, Gysbers, & Petroski, 2001; Wilkerson, Pérusse, & Hughes, 2013). Overall, the services conducted by school counselors have a positive impact on student success. As such, research investigating the factors related to higher incidence of school counselors’ direct student services could provide significant educational benefits to schools.


Researchers have examined a variety of topics that relate to increased student services. Clemens, Milsom, and Cashwell (2009) found that if school counselors had a good relationship with their principal and were engaged in higher levels of advocacy, they were likely to have increased implementation of programmatic counseling services. Another study concluded that school counselors’ values were not associated with the occurrence of service delivery, but researchers did find counselors with higher levels of leadership practices also delivered more school counseling services (Shillingford & Lambie, 2010). Other factors related to increased levels of school counselors’ service delivery are increased job satisfaction (Baggerly & Osborn, 2006; Pyne, 2011) and higher self-efficacy (Ernst, 2012; Mullen & Lambie, 2016). These studies provided notable contributions to the literature; however, at this time no known studies have examined the relationship among school counselors’ burnout, perceived stress and direct student services.


Stress and Burnout Among School Counselors


Stress is a significant issue that relates to the impairment of work performance (Salas, Driskell, & Hughes, 1996) and is a likely problem for school counselors. The construct of stress has a rich history in scientific literature dating back to the 1930s (Cannon, 1935; Selye, 1936). Selye (1980) articulated one of the first broad definitions of stress by defining it as the “nonspecific results of any demand upon the body” (p. vii). Over time, various authors developed an assortment of definitions (Ivancevich & Matteson, 1980; Janis & Mann, 1977; McGrath, 1976), but Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) definition of stress is common among scholars (Driskell & Salas, 1996; Lazarus, 2006). In their Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) defined stress as a “particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her wellbeing” (p. 19). Lazarus and Folkman conceptualized that stress results from an imbalance between one’s perception of demands or threats and their ability to cope with the perceived demands or threats. Consequently, one’s appraisal of demands and their assessment of their coping ability becomes a critical issue in relationship to whether or not the demand will trigger a stress response.


McCarthy et al. (2010) applied Lazarus and Folkman’s model of stress (1984) to school counselors using an instrument that measures the demands and resources experienced by school counselors called the Classroom Appraisal of Resources and Demands–School Counselor Version (McCarthy & Lambert, 2008). McCarthy et al. (2010) found that school counselors who reported challenging demands as a part of their job also had higher levels of stress. This finding is troubling considering that school counselors oftentimes encounter ambiguous job duties, inconsistent job roles and conflicts in their job expectations (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Culbreth, Scarborough, Banks-Johnson, & Solomon, 2005; Lambie, 2007; Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). An additional concern is that stress occurring over an extended period of time can lead to emotional and physical health problems (Sapolsky, 2004) along with increased likelihood of leaving the profession (DeMato & Curcio, 2004). Fortunately, prior research reveals that school counselors have reported low stress levels (McCarthy et al., 2010; Rayle, 2006). Still, research on school counselors’ stress and its effects on the services they provide is important.


An additional factor that we believe may have an impact on direct student services is burnout. Burnout was first recognized in the 1970s (Freudenberger, 1974; Maslach, 1976) and is considered to have significant consequences for counseling professionals (Butler & Constantine, 2005; Lambie, 2007; Lawson, 2007; Lee et al., 2007). The topic of burnout is common in the literature across many disciplines (Schaufeli, Leiter, & Maslach, 2009) and has been given particular attention in school counseling research (Butler & Constantine, 2005; Lambie, 2007; Wachter et al., 2008; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006). Freudenberger (1974, 1986) suggested that burnout results from depleted energy and the feelings of being overwhelmed that emerge from the exposure to diverse issues related to helping others, which over time affects one’s attitude, perception and judgment. Pines and Maslach (1978) described burnout as an ailment “of physical and emotional exhaustion, involving the development of negative self-concept, negative job attitude, and loss of concern and feelings for clients” (p. 234). In 1981, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) was developed as a method to measure one’s experience of burnout in the helping and human service field (Maslach & Jackson, 1981).


More recently, Lee et al. (2007) expanded the measurement of burnout and presented the construct of counselor burnout, which they defined as “the failure to perform clinical tasks appropriately because of personal discouragement, apathy to symptom stress, and emotional/physical harm” (p. 143). Within their model, Lee and associates found that counselor burnout includes the constructs of exhaustion, negative work environment, devaluing clients, incompetence and deterioration in personal life. These constructs correlate with the factors measured by the MBI (Maslach & Jackson, 1981), but provide a definition consistent with the work of school counselors (Gnilka, Karpinski, & Smith, 2015).


Many researchers have explored factors related to school counselor burnout. Overall, scholars have found that school counselors report low levels of burnout (Butler & Constantine, 2005; Gnilka et al., 2015; Lambie, 2007; Wachter et al., 2008; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006). Nonetheless, researchers also reported that higher collective self-esteem is associated with a higher sense of personal accomplishment and lower emotional exhaustion (Butler & Constantine, 2005), whereas higher levels of ego development are associated with higher personal accomplishment (Lambie, 2007). Moreover, Wilkerson and Bellini (2006) discovered that school counselors who handle stressors with emotion-focused coping are at a higher risk of experiencing burnout symptoms, and Wilkerson (2009) established that school counselors’ emotion-focused coping increases their likelihood of experiencing symptoms of burnout. Yet, there is no research on the connection between school counselors’ burnout and the direct student services they provide despite a high likelihood that burnout is the cause of fewer and deteriorated services for students (Maslach, 2003).


The purpose of this study was to build upon existing literature regarding school counselors’ stress, burnout and their facilitation of direct student services. The guiding research questions were: (a) Do practicing school counselors’ levels of burnout and perceived stress contribute to their levels of service delivery? and (b) Do practicing school counselors’ levels of stress correlate with their burnout? Consequently, the following research hypotheses were examined: (a) School counselors’ degree of burnout and perceived stress contributes to their facilitation of direct student services, and (b) School counselors’ degree of perceived stress correlates positively with their level of burnout.





To answer the research questions associated with this study, we employed a cross-sectional research design (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007). Furthermore, this study utilized online survey data collection procedures. Prior to any data collection, we received approval from the Institutional Review Board at the first author’s university. During the first step in the data collection process, we retrieved the name and e-mail address of every school counselor listed in the ASCA online directory of membership. Next, we generated a simple random sample of school counselors. Then, we sent the sample selected from the ASCA online directory a series of three e-mails that aligned with tailored design method (Dillman, Smyth, & Christian, 2009) recommendations for survey research. Each e-mail contained a brief description of the survey and a link to the online survey managed by Qualtrics (2013). If a participant wished to take the survey, he or she was directed to the Web site that posted the explanation of the study. If they agreed to participate, they would move forward and complete the survey. Participants were screened as to whether they were practicing school counselors or not (e.g., student, counselor educator or retired). Of the 6,500 participants sampled, 41 indicated they were not a practicing school counselor. In addition, 312 e-mails were not working at the time of the survey. Out of the 6,147 practicing school counselors surveyed, 1,304 (21.21% visit response rate) visited the survey Web site and 926 completed the survey in its entirety, which resulted in a 15.06% useable response rate. The response rate received for this study is high in comparison to studies using similar methods (e.g., 14%, Harris, 2013; 11.4%, Mullen, Lambie & Conley, 2014).


Participant Characteristics

     Participants (N = 926) were practicing school counselors in private, public and charter K–12 educational settings from across the United States. The mean age was 43.27 (SD = 10.03) and included 816 (88.1%) female and 110 (11.9%) male respondents. The participants’ ethnicity included 50 (5.4%) African Americans, 5 (.5%) Asian Americans, 29 (3.1%) Hispanic Americans, 11 (1.2%) Multiracial, 2 (.2%) Native Americans, 4 (.4%) Pacific Islanders, 811 (87.6%) European Americans, and 13 (1.5%) participants who identified their ethnicity as “Other.” On average, participants had 10.97 (SD = 6.92) years of experience and 401.45 (SD = 262.05) students on their caseload. The geographical location of the participants’ work setting favored suburban (n = 434, 46.9%) and rural communities (n = 321, 34.7%) with fewer school counselors working in urban settings (n = 171, 18.5%). Most participants reported that they worked in the high school grade levels (n = 317, 34.2%) closely followed by elementary (n = 270, 29.2%) and middle school or junior high school (n = 203, 21.9%) grade levels, with 136 (14.7%) respondents working in another grade level format (e.g., grades K–12, K–8, or 6–12).



This study used the (a) Counselor Burnout Inventory (CBI; Lee et al., 2007), (b) the School Counselor Activity Rating Scale (SCARS; Scarborough, 2005), and (c) the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS; Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983). Participants also completed a researcher-created demographics form regarding their personal characteristics (e.g., age, gender and ethnicity) and work-related characteristics (e.g., location type, grade level, caseload, experience as a school counselor and percentage of time they directly work with students).


CBI. The CBI (Lee et al., 2007) is a 20-item self-report measure that examines counselor burnout across five domains. The domains that make up the CBI include: (a) exhaustion, (b) incompetence, (c) negative work environment, (d) devaluing client, and (e) deterioration in personal life. The CBI makes use of a 5-point Likert rating scale that ranges from 1 (never true) to 5 (always true) and examines emotional states and behaviors representative of burnout. Some sample items include “I feel exhausted due to my work as a counselor” (exhaustion), “I feel I am an incompetent counselor” (incompetence), “I feel negative energy from my supervisor” (negative work environment), “I have little empathy for my clients” (devaluing client), and “I feel I have poor boundaries between work and my personal life” (deterioration in personal life). Lee et al. (2007) demonstrated the construct validity of the CBI through an exploratory factor analysis that identified a five-factor solution in addition to a confirmatory factor analysis that supported the five-factor model with an adequate fit to the data.


Gnilka et al. (2015) found support for the five-factor structure of the CBI (Lee et al., 2007) with school counseling using confirmatory factor analysis, which supports the CBI as an appropriate measure for school counselor burnout. Lee et al. (2007) established convergent validity for the CBI based upon the correlations between the subscales on the Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey (Maslach & Jackson, 198l) and the CBI. In prior research, the Cronbach’s alphas of the CBI subscales indicated good internal consistency (Streiner, 2003) with score ranges of .80 to .86 for exhaustion, .73 to .81 for incompetence, .83 to .85 for negative work environment, .61 to .83 for devaluing client, and .67 to .84 for deterioration in personal life (Lee et al., 2007; Lee, Cho, Kissinger, & Ogle, 2010; Puig et al., 2012). The internal consistency coefficients of the CBI in this investigation also were good (Streiner, 2003) with Cronbach’s alphas of .87 for exhaustion, .79 for incompetence, .84 for negative work environment, .79 for devaluing client, and .81 for deterioration in personal life.


SCARS. The SCARS (Scarborough, 2005) is a 48-item verbal frequency measure that examines the occurrence that school counselors actually perform and prefer to perform components of the ASCA National Model (2012). The SCARS measures school counselors’ ratings of activities based on the four levels of interventions articulated by ASCA (1999) and the ASCA National Model (2003). Unfortunately, a more recent version of the SCARS that articulates the new ASCA National Model (2012) does not exist. Nevertheless, this study utilized two SCARS scales (counseling and curriculum) that measure the incidence of direct student services. To the benefit of this investigation, the direct services measured on the SCARS have not changed in the new edition of the ASCA National Model (2003, 2012). Similar to Shillingford and Lambie (2010) and Mullen and Lambie (2016), this investigation utilized the actual scale, but not the prefer scale, on the SCARS (Scarborough, 2005) because this study sought to examine the frequency that school counselors delivered direct student services, not their preferences and not the difference between their preference and actuality. The subscales that measure direct student services used in this study included the counseling (e.g., group and individual counseling interventions; 10 items) and curriculum (e.g., classroom guidance interventions; 8 items) subscales, whereas the coordination, consultation and other activities scales were not used because they measure indirect activities.


The SCARS (Scarborough, 2005) assesses the frequency of school counselor service delivery with a 5-point Likert rating scale that ranges from 1 (I never do this) to 5 (I routinely do this). Scores on the SCARS can be total scores or mean scores. Some sample items from the counseling subscale are “Counsel with students regarding school behavior” and “Provide small group counseling for academic issues.” Some sample items from the curriculum subscale are “Conduct classroom lessons addressing career development and the world of work” and “Conduct classroom lessons on conflict resolution.” Scarborough (2005) examined the validity by investigating the variances in score on the actual scale based on participant grade level and found that participants’ grade level had a statistically significant effect across the scales with small to large effect sizes (e.g., ranging from .11 to .68[ω2]), which supported the convergent validity of the SCARS. Additionally, construct validity was supported using factor analysis. In prior research using the SCARS, the internal consistency of the counseling and curriculum scales was strong with Cronbach’s alphas of .93 for the curriculum actual scale and .85 for the counseling actual scale (Scarborough, 2005). The internal consistency coefficients of the SCARS actual subscales in this investigation were good (Streiner, 2003) with Cronbach’s alphas of .77 for the counseling scale and .93 for the curriculum scale.


PSS. The PSS (Cohen et al., 1983) is a 10-item self-report measure that examines the participants’ appraisal of stress by asking about feelings and thoughts during the past month. The PSS uses a 5-point Likert scale that ranges from 0 (never) to 4 (very often) and includes four positively stated items that are reverse coded. Some sample items include, “In the last month, how often have you felt that you were on top of things?” (reverse coded), and “In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?” The PSS has been shown to have acceptable internal consistency with Cronbach’s alphas ranging from .84 to .91 (Chao, 2011; Cohen et al., 1983; Daire, Dominguez, Carlson, & Case-Pease, 2014). The internal consistency coefficient of the PSS in this study also was acceptable (Streiner, 2003) with a Cronbach’s alpha of .88.




Preliminary Analysis

Initial screening of the data included the search for outliers (e.g., data points three or more standard deviations from the mean) using converted z-scores (Osborne, 2012), which resulted in identifying 21 cases that had at least one variable with an extreme outlier. To accommodate for these outliers, the researchers utilized a Windorized mean based on adjacent data points (Barnett & Lewis, 1994; Osborne & Overbay, 2004). Next, the assumptions associated with structural equation modeling (SEM) were tested (e.g., normality and multicollinearity; Hair, Black, Babin, Anderson, & Tatham, 2006; Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). Multicollinearity was not present with these data; however, the data violated the assumption of normality of a single composite variable (e.g., devaluing clients scale on the CBI). Researchers conducted descriptive analyses of the data using the statistical software SPSS. Table 1 presents the means, standard deviations and correlations for the study variables.


Model Testing

This correlational investigation utilized a two-step SEM method (Kline, 2011) to examine the research hypothesis employing AMOS (version 20) software. The first step included a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) to inspect the measurement model of burnout and its fit with the data. Then, a structural model was developed based on the measurement model. The measurement model and structural model were appraised using model fit indices, standardized residual covariances, standardized factorial loadings and standardized regression estimates (Byrne, 2010; Kline, 2011). Modifications to the models were made as needed (Kline, 2011). Both the measurement and the structural models employed the use of maximum likelihood estimation technique despite the presence of non-normality based on recommendations from the literature (Curran, West, & Finch, 1996; Hu, Bentler, & Kano, 1992; Lei & Lomax 2005; Olsson, Foss, Troye, & Howell, 2000).






Table 1 Correlations among measures of direct student services, perceived stress, and burnout



















Percent of Time





Perceived Stress



















































Note. N = 926. All correlations (r) were statistically significant (p < .001). Counseling = frequency of direct counseling services, curriculum = frequency of direct curriculum services, percent of time = percent of time in direct services to students, NEW = negative work environment, DC = devaluing client, DPL = deterioration in personal life.



Multiple fit indices were examined to determine the goodness of fit for the measurement model and structural model (Hu & Bentler, 1999; Kline, 2011; Weston & Gore, 2006). The fit indices that were used include: (a) chi-square, (b) comparative fit index (CFI), (c) goodness of fit (GFI), (d) standardized root mean square residual (SRMSR), and (e) root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA). Furthermore, we consulted the normed fit index (NFI) and Tucker-Lewis index (TLI) because they are more robust to non-normal data as compared to other indices (Lei & Lomax, 2005). For a detailed description of these fit indices, readers can review the works of Hu and Bentler (1999), Kline (2011), and Weston and Gore (2006). We used these fit indices to establish a diverse view of model fit.


     Measurement model. First, we employed a CFA model to examine the latent variable representing burnout (Lee et al., 2007). The research team totaled each subscale on the CBIs to develop a composite score for each domain. The initial measurement model for burnout produced acceptable standardized factor loadings ranging from .41 (devaluing client) to .57 (incompetence), .62 (negative work environment), .77 (deterioration in personal life), and .82 (exhaustion). Furthermore, all fit indices for the measurement model indicated an adequate fitting model except chi-square, RMSEA, and TLI: χ2 (df = 5, N = 926) = 107.07, p < .001; GFI = .96; CFI = .92; RMSEA = .15; SRMR = .06; NFI = .92; TLI = .85. Therefore, we consulted the modification indices and standardized residual covariance matrix and tested a new CFA based upon these consultations.


The modifications indices indicated the need to correlate the error terms for incompetence and devaluing client. The resulting model produced a model in which all fit indices indicated an adequate fitting model: χ2 (df = 4, N = 926) = 12.03, p = .02; GFI = .99; CFI = .99; RMSEA = .05; SRMR = .02; NFI = .99; TLI = .99. Further inspection of the standardized factor loadings for the model indicated they were all acceptable except for the factor loading for devaluing client, which dropped to .36 (below .40; Stevens, 1992). While these modifications improved the overall fit of the CFA, the correlation of incompetence and devaluing client has no theoretical justification (Byrne, 2010). In addition, the correlation of the error terms for incompetence and devaluing client produced a standardized factor loading below the noted standard of .40 (Kline, 2011; Stevens, 1992). Subsequently, we removed the subscale of devaluating client given: (a) the low factor loading produced after modification of the initial model, and (b) the lack of normality in the composite score.


Next, we examined the new modified measurement model that included the removal of the subscale devaluing client. The resulting model (see Figure 1) produced a model in which all fit indices indicated a good fitting model: χ2 (df = 2, N = 926) = 8.25, p = .02; GFI = .99; CFI = .99; RMSEA = .06; SRMR = .02; NFI = .99; TLI = .98. The modified measurement model for burnout produced acceptable standardized factor loadings ranging from .53 (incompetence) to .63 (negative work environment), .77 (deterioration in personal life), and .85 (exhaustion). In review of the model fit indices and standardized factor loadings, we deemed the measurement model acceptable for use in the structural model.


     Structural model. We developed the structural model (see Figure 1) based on a review of the literature, and it was theorized in this model that school counselors’ perceived stress correlates to school counselors’ burnout and contributes to the frequency with which they provide direct student services. In addition, this model tested the hypothesized model that school counselors’ burnout contributes to their frequency of direct student services. The structural model includes the measurement model previously tested that consisted of the latent variable of burnout. School counselors’ perceived stress and burnout were defined as exogenous or independent variables. Perceived stress was a manifest variable consisting of participants’ composite scores on the PSS (Cohen et al., 1983).


Additionally, we defined the manifest variables of percentage of time at work providing direct services to students, direct curriculum activities, and direct counseling activities as the endogenous or dependent variables that measure participants’ facilitation of direct student services. The variable of percentage of time at work providing direct services to students was a single demographic item reported by participants, while direct curriculum activities and direct counseling activities were the participants’ composite scores derived from subscales on the SCARS (Scarborough, 2005). In addition, the error terms of the direct student services variables—percentage of time at work providing direct services to students, direct curriculum activities and direct counseling activities—were correlated given that they measure similar constructs.


An examination of the structural model indicated a strong goodness of fit for all fit indices except for chi-square: χ2 (df = 14, N = 926) = 108.37, p < .001; GFI = .97; CFI = .96; RMSEA = .07; SRMR = .04; NFI = .95; TLI = .91. The researchers deemed the structural model as suitable with these data despite the significant chi-square (Henson, 2006; Kline, 2011; Weston & Gore, 2006). A closer examination of the standardized regression weights identified that school counselors’ burnout scores contributed to 12% (β = -.35, p < .001) of the variance in their direct counseling activities and 5% (β = -.22, p < .001) of the variance in their direct curriculum activities. Furthermore, school counselors’ burnout scores contributed to 6% (β = -.24, p < .001) of the variance in percentage of time at work providing direct services to students. Perceived stress did not contribute to direct counseling activities (β = .11, p = .04), direct curriculum activities (β = .06, p = .31), and percentage of time at work providing direct services to students (β = .04, p = .51). In addition, perceived stress and burnout produced a statistically significant correlation (β = .75, p < .001; 56% of the variance explained).


The structural model (Figure 1) indicates that school counselors’ level of counselor burnout had a negative contribution to the frequency of their direct counseling activities, direct curriculum activities and percentage of time at work providing direct services to students. However, it should be noted that the effect sizes of these findings were small to medium (Sink & Stroh, 2006). An additional finding from this investigation was that the perceived stress correlated with burnout with a large effect size (Sink & Stroh, 2006); however, perceived stress did not have a statistically significant contribution to school counselors’ direct counseling activities, direct curriculum activities, and percentage of time at work providing direct services to students.



Figure 1. Final hypothesized structural model depicting the relationship between school counselors’ (N = 926) perceived stress, burnout, and direct student services.




This study examined the relationship between school counselors’ reported burnout, perceived stress and frequency of direct student services. The findings indicated burnout was a statistically significant contributor to the frequency of direct counseling services (β = -.35; medium effect size) and direct curriculum services (β = -.22; small to medium effect size). Furthermore, the findings identified that burnout was a significant contributor to the participants’ report of the percentage of time they spend on their job working directly with students (β = -.24; small to medium effect size). Although the results should be interpreted with some level of caution, we found that burnout also had a statistically significant relationship to frequency of direct student services with increased levels of burnout relating to lower levels of direct student services. Nonetheless, these findings are not surprising considering the literature on burnout emphasizes the important role burnout plays on the effort one places on their job, with individuals presenting with higher burnout typically having lower investment interest in their job (Garman, Corrigan, & Morris, 2002; Landrum, Knight, & Flynn, 2012; Maslach, 2003). While the findings support the literature on the role of burnout, they also bring attention to the possibility that burnout does not have a strong relationship to school counselors’ facilitation of direct counseling services as noted by the small effect size.


An interesting finding was that school counselors’ degree of perceived stress did not contribute to the direct student services variables and yet did correlate with burnout. In fact, the relationship between perceived stress and counselor burnout had a large effect size, with 56% of the variance among these variables explained by their relationship. This finding accentuates the difference between the constructs of burnout and stress because burnout had a statistically significant relationship with the direct student services variables and stress did not, despite the strength of the relationship between burnout and stress. One interpretation of this finding is that school counselors’ ability to manage and cope with stress permits them to complete their job functions, whereas burnout may be more challenging to overcome. Furthermore, scholars state that prolonged exposure to stress worsens or cultivates burnout (Cordes & Dougherty, 1993; Schaufeli & Enzmann, 1998). This finding is logical given the theory behind burnout (Lee et al., 2007; Maslach, 2003); yet, this is one of only a few studies (McCarthy et al., 2010; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006) in the school counseling literature to examine this relationship. However, these results need further exploration. As McCarthy et al. (2010) noted, the construct of stress is multidimensional (includes appraisal of resources and demands) and the PSS (Cohen et al., 1983) is a single-dimension scale. Therefore, a scale that examines stress in a multifaceted manner may produce different results.


An additional finding worth discussion involves the measurement model of the CBI (Lee et al., 2007). Specifically, this study found that the construct of devaluing client did not fit with the data. Furthermore, participants reported low scores regarding the devaluing client scale, as indicated by the descriptive statistics. The devaluing client subscale also was the only subscale on the CBI that was not normally distributed. These results were similar to Gnilka et al.’s (2015) findings that indicated school counselors are likely to maintain high levels of empathy and positive regard for their students. These findings may indicate that the devaluing clients subscale may not reflect symptoms of burnout for school counselors. This is a promising finding as it suggests that school counselors do not develop a negative perspective of students because of the negative consequences of their job.


The descriptive statistics from this investigation also provide some noteworthy information. First, participants reported moderate to low levels of burnout across the five factors of the CBI (Lee et al., 2007), with exhaustion having the highest mean score. These results are consistent with prior research (Butler & Constantine, 2005; Lambie, 2007; Wachter et al., 2008; Wilkerson & Bellini, 2006) on burnout and indicate that, overall, school counselors report low levels of burnout. An additional finding was that school counselors reported a low level of perceived stress, which is surprising given the challenge of role ambiguity, confusion and conflict (Burnham & Jackson, 2000; Culbreth et al., 2005; Lambie, 2007; Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). However, school counselors have reported low levels of stress in other research (e.g., McCarthy et al., 2010; Rayle, 2006). The last noteworthy finding from the descriptive statistics was the measures of direct student services. This investigation was one of the first to focus specifically on the topic of direct student services versus other aspects of school counselors’ roles. This study found that school counselors reported that, on average, they spend over half their time working directly with students. In addition, they reported high frequencies for facilitating both curriculum and counseling activities. These findings are promising and consistent with other research examining these constructs (Mullen & Lambie, 2016; Scarborough & Culbreth, 2005; Shillingford & Lambie, 2010). Overall, the results from this study provide new and novel information for the school counseling discipline.


Limitations and Implications for Future Research

Readers should interpret these findings within the context of their limitations. Some limitations from this study include: (a) associational research using correlation statistics does not establish cause and effect relationships; (b) the response rate, although high as compared to other studies with similar methods, is low; and (c) the generalizability of these findings is limited by the sampling procedures (e.g., only sampled ASCA members; Gall et al., 2007). In addition, participants who respond to surveys may have different characteristics as compared to those school counselors who chose not to participate (Gall et al., 2007).


The findings from this study have implications for future research. A prominent direction for future research is the examination of the relationship between stress and programmatic service delivery, including direct student services. This study identified that perceived stress has no relationship with direct service delivery, but a multidimensional measure of stress (McCarthy & Lambert, 2008) may produce different results. Similarly, this study found that perceived stress relates to higher levels of burnout and supports the theory that chronic stress relates to increased burnout. Future research might further confirm these findings.


Another relevant future research implication is exploring factors that prevent or mediate the contribution of burnout to school counselor service delivery, considering this investigation found a significant relationship between these constructs. A variety of mechanisms may serve as buffers between burnout and programmatic service delivery, such as coping skills, career-sustaining behaviors, emotional intelligence, grit, or self-efficacy. Nonetheless, the identification of preventative skills or personal traits that inhibit the effects of burnout may lead to interventions to support school counselors’ work. Future research also can examine training interventions that target school counselors’ susceptibility to burnout or stress. A final research implication is the need to replicate and confirm our findings. Researchers might consider replicating this study with similar or different measures and data collection methods.


Implications for School Counseling Practitioners and Supervisors

The degree of perceived stress for participants in this study had a positive correlation with their degree of burnout. Furthermore, participants’ burnout negatively contributed to their level of direct student services. While this study included several limitations, these findings provide more evidence for the positive relationship between stress and burnout, in addition to the negative contribution burnout can have on the job functions of school counselors. In an effort to support direct student services, it would behoove school counselors to take steps to increase their awareness about their well-being, including symptoms of burnout, and seek support to address concerns as they arise. Additionally, school counselors’ failure to address burnout is an ethical concern (American Counseling Association, 2014). School counselors could utilize a self-assessment (i.e., Counselor Burnout Inventory [Lee et al., 2007] or Professional Quality of Life Scale [Stamm, 2010]) to examine their level of burnout and subsequently address their work functions and lifestyle to alleviate symptoms.


As Moyer (2011) pointed out, supervision plays a vital role in school counselor development and can be a way to alleviate burnout. Thus, supervisors can provide opportunities for school counselors to learn ways to assess their well-being with the aim of developing career-sustaining behaviors to prevent burnout. For example, supervisors can inform school counselors of available screening measures and provide resources to aid in the development of career-sustaining behaviors. Similarly, supervisors can create activities (Lambie, 2006) that assess school counselors’ well-being, which allows counselors to address negative feelings. Efforts made to prevent burnout may increase the chances of school counselors performing direct student services. Higher rates of direct student services, such as individual and group counseling, also may lead to better educational outcomes for students (Lapan, 2012).


In an effort to reduce school counselors’ burnout and potentially increase their delivery of direct student services, practitioners and supervisors can initiate wellness-related activities. Butler and Constantine (2005) noted that peer supervision or consultation along with social support from colleagues and administrators might be helpful for reducing the effects of burnout. Furthermore, Lawson and Myers (2011) reported on the highest rated career-sustaining behavior, which provides potential to support the wellness of school counseling practitioners. As Meyer and Ponton (2006) noted, counselors as a whole tend to put their own wellness to the side in order to provide services to their clients. Therefore, another consideration for school districts and school counseling organizations is to offer wellness-focused training that could raise attention to counselors’ level of stress and burnout and provide strategies to enhance their wellness. Additionally, school counselors should remember to advocate for the profession and for themselves (Young & Lambie, 2007). It is important that administrators understand the critical wellness needs of school counselors, and school counselors should be among the first to advocate for this cause. As these findings indicate, there is a relationship between burnout and the quality of services offered by school counselors. Therefore, it is important that counselors “learn to be their own advocates and help dysfunctional workplaces become well” (Young & Lambie, 2007, p. 99).


In summary, this study examined the association of practicing school counselors’ degree of burnout, perceived stress and frequency of direct student services. The findings indicated that higher levels of burnout contribute to a decreased frequency of direct student services. Furthermore, school counselors’ perceived stress does not contribute to their facilitation of direct student services, but was positively associated with burnout. Overall, these findings are encouraging because the descriptive statistics indicate that school counselors operate at a low level of burnout and perceived stress and provide a moderate to high frequency of direct student services.



Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.






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Patrick R. Mullen, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at the College of William and Mary. Daniel Gutierrez, NCC, is an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Correspondence can be addressed to Patrick Mullen, School of Education, P.O. Box 8795, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA  23188, prmullen@wm.edu.

Counselor-in-Training Perceptions of Supervision Practices Related to Self-Care and Burnout

E. Heather Thompson, Melodie H. Frick, Shannon Trice-Black

Counselors-in-training face the challenges of balancing academic, professional, and personal obligations. Many counselors-in-training, however, report a lack of instruction regarding personal wellness and prevention of personal counselor burnout. The present study used CQR methodology with 14 counseling graduate students to investigate counselor-in-training perceptions of self-care, burnout, and supervision practices related to promoting counselor resilience. The majority of participants in this study perceived that they experienced some degree of burnout in their experiences as counselors-in-training. Findings from this study highlight the importance of the role of supervision in promoting resilience as a protective factor against burnout among counselors-in-training and provide information for counselor supervisors about wellness and burnout prevention within supervision practice

Keywords: counselors-in-training, wellness, burnout, supervision, resilience

Professional counselors, due to often overwhelming needs of clients and heavy caseloads, are at high risk for burnout. Research indicates that burnout among mental health practitioners is a common phenomenon (Jenaro, Flores, & Arias, 2007). Burnout is often experienced as “a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations” (Gilliland & James, 2001, p. 610). Self-care and recognition of burnout symptoms are necessary for counselors to effectively care for their clients as well as themselves. Counselors struggling with burnout can experience diminished morale, job dissatisfaction (Koeske & Kelly, 1995), negative self-concept, and loss of concern for clients (Rosenberg & Pace, 2006). Clients working with counselors experiencing burnout are at serious risk, as they may not receive proper care and attention to often severe and complicated problems.

The potential hazards for counselor distress in practicum and internship are many. Counselors-in-training often begin their professional journeys with a certain degree of idealism and unrealistic expectations about their roles. Many assume that hard work and efforts will translate to meaningful work with clients who are eager to change and who are appreciative of the counselor’s efforts (Leiter, 1991). However, clients often have complex problems that are not always easily rectified and which contribute to diminished job-related self-efficacy for beginning counselors (Jenaro et al., 2007). In addition, counselor trainees often experience difficulties as they balance their own personal growth as counselors while working with clients with immense struggles and needs (Skovholt, 2001). Furthermore, elusive measures for success in counseling can undermine a new counselor’s sense of professional competence (Kestnbaum, 1984; Skovholt, Grier, & Hanson, 2001). Client progress is often difficult to concretely monitor and define. The “readiness gap,” or the lack of reciprocity of attentiveness, giving, and responsibility between the counselor-in-training and the client, are an additional job-related stressor that may increase the likelihood of burnout (Kestnbaum, 1984; Skovholt et al., 2001; Truchot, Keirsebilck, & Meyer, 2000).

Counselors-in-training are exposed to emotionally demanding stories (Canfield, 2005) and situations which may come as a surprise to them and challenge their ideas about humanity. The emotional demands of counseling entail “constant empathy and one-way caring” (Skovholt et al., 2001, p. 170) which may further drain a counselor’s reservoir of resilience. Yet, mental health practitioners have a tendency to present themselves as caregivers who are less vulnerable to emotional distress, thereby hindering their ability to focus on their own needs and concerns (Barnett, Baker, Elman, & Schoener, 2007; Sherman, 1996). Counselors who do not recognize and address their diminished capacity when stressed are likely to be operating with impaired professional competence, which violates ethical responsibilities to do no harm.

Counselor supervision is designed to facilitate the ethical, academic, personal, and professional development of counselors-in-training (CACREP, 2009). Bolstering counselor resilience in an effort to prevent burnout is one aspect of facilitating ethical, personal, and professional development. Supervisors who work closely with counselors-in-training during their practicum and internship can promote the hardiness and sustainability of counselors-in-training by helping them learn to self-assess in order to recognize personal needs and assert themselves accordingly. This may include learning to say “no” to the demands that exceed their capacity or learning to actively create and maintain rejuvenating relationships and interests outside of counseling (Skovholt et al., 2001). Supervisors also can teach and model self-care and positive coping strategies for stress, which may influence supervisees’ practice of self-care (Aten, Madson, Rice, & Chamberlain, 2008). In an effort to bolster counselor resilience, supervisors can facilitate counselor self-understanding about overextending oneself to prove professional competency to achieve a sense of self-worth (Rosenburg & Pace, 2006). Supervisors can help counselors-in-training come to terms with the need for immediate positive reinforcement related to work or employment, which is limited in the counseling profession as change rarely occurs quickly (Skovholt et al., 2001). Counselor resiliency also may be bolstered by helping counselors-in-training establish realistic measures of success and focus on the aspects of counseling that they can control such as their knowledge and ability to create strong therapeutic alliances rather than client outcomes. In sum, distressing issues in counseling, warning signs of burnout, and coping strategies for dealing with stress should be discussed and the seeds of self-care should be planted so they may grow and hopefully sustain counselors-in-training over the course of their careers.


The purpose of this exploratory study was to investigate counselor-in-training perceptions of self-care, burnout, and supervision practices related to promoting counselor resilience. The primary research questions that guided this qualitative study included: (a) What are master’s-level counselors-in-training’s perceptions of counselor burnout? (b) What are the perceptions of self-care among master’s-level counselors-in-training? (c) What, if anything, have master’s-level counselors-in-training learned about counselor burnout in their supervision experiences? And (d) what, if anything, have master’s level counselors-in-training learned about self-care in their supervision experiences?
The consensual qualitative research method (CQR) was used to explore the supervision experiences of master’s-level counselors-in-training. CQR works from a constructivist-post-positivist paradigm that uses open-ended semi-structured interviews to collect data from individuals, and reaches consensus on domains, core ideas, and cross-analyses by using a research team and an external auditor (Hill, Knox, Thompson, Williams, Hess, & Ladany, 2005; Ponterotto, 2005). Using the CQR method, the research team examined commonalities and arrived at a consensus of themes within and across participants’ descriptions of the promotion of self-care and burnout prevention within their supervision experiences (Hill et al., 2005; Hill, Thompson, & Nutt Williams, 1997).


Interviewees. CQR methodologists recommend a sample size of 8–15 participants (Hill et al., 2005). The participants in this sample included 14 individuals; 13 females and 1 male, who were graduate students in master’s-level counseling programs and enrolled in practicum or internship courses. The participants attended one of three universities in the United States (one in the Midwest and two in the Southeast). The sample consisted of 10 participants in school counseling programs and 4 participants in clinical mental health counseling programs. Thirteen participants identified as Caucasian, and one participant identified as Hispanic. The ages of participants ranged from 24 to 52 years of age (mean = 28).

Researchers. An informed understanding of the researchers’ attempt to make meaning of participant narratives about supervision, counselor burnout, and self-care necessitates a discussion of potential biases. This research team consisted of three Caucasian female faculty members from three different graduate-level counseling programs. All three researchers are proficient in supervision practices and passionate about facilitating counselor growth and development through supervision. All members of the research team facilitate individual and group supervision for counselors-in-training in graduate programs. The three researchers adhere to varying degrees of humanistic, feminist, and constructivist theoretical leanings. All members of the research team believe that supervision is an appropriate venue for bolstering both personal and professional protective factors that may serve as buffers against counselor burnout. It also is worth noting that the three members of the research team believed they had experienced varying degrees of burnout over the course of their careers. The researchers acknowledge these shared biases and attempted to maintain objectivity with an awareness of their personal experiences with burnout, approaches to supervision, and beliefs regarding the importance of addressing protective factors, wellness and burnout prevention in supervision. This study also was influenced by an external auditor who is a former counselor educator with more than 20 years of experience in qualitative research methods and supervision practice. As colleagues in the field of counselor education and supervision, the research team and the auditor were able to openly and respectfully discuss their differing perspectives throughout the data analysis process, which permitted them to arrive at consensus without being stifled by power struggles.

Procedures for Data Collection

Criterion sampling was used to select participants in an intentional manner to understand specified counseling students’ experiences in supervision. Criteria for participation in this study included enrollment as a graduate student in a master’s-level counseling program and completion of a practicum experience or participation in a counseling internship in a school or mental health counseling agency. Researchers disseminated information about this study by email to master’s-level students in counseling programs at three different universities. Interested students were instructed to contact, by email or phone, a designated member of the research team, who was not a faculty member at their university. All participants were provided with an oral explanation of informed consent and all participants signed the informed consent documents. All procedures followed those established by the Institutional Review Board of the three universities associated with this study.

Within the research team, researchers were designated to conduct all communication, contact, and interviews with participants not affiliated with their respective universities, in order to foster a confidential and non-coercive environment for the participants. Interviews were conducted on one occasion, in person or via telephone, in a semi-structured format. Participants in both face-to-face and telephone interviews were invited to respond to questions from the standard interview protocol (see Appendix A) about their experiences and perceptions of supervision practices that addressed counselor self-care and burnout prevention. Participants were encouraged to elaborate on their perceptions and experiences in order to foster the emergence of a rich and thorough understanding. The transferability of this study was promoted by the rich, thick descriptions provided by an in-depth look at the experiences and perceptions of this sample of counselors-in-training. Interviews lasted approximately 50–70 minutes. The interview protocol was generated after a thorough review of the literature and lengthy discussions about researcher experiences as a supervisee and a supervisor. Follow-up surveys (see Appendix B) were administered electronically to participants six weeks after the interview to capture additional thoughts and experiences of the participants.

Data Analysis

All interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim for data analysis. Transcripts were checked for accuracy by comparing them to the audio-recordings after the transcription process. Participant names were changed to pseudonyms to protect participant anonymity. Participants’ real names and contact information were only used for scheduling purposes. Information linking participants to their pseudonyms was not kept.

Coding of domains. Prior to beginning the data analysis process, researchers generated a general list of broad domain codes based on the interview protocol, a thorough understanding of the extant literature, and a review of the transcripts. Once consensus was achieved, each researcher independently coded blocks of data into each domain code for seven of the 14 cases. Next, as a team, the researchers worked together to generate consensus on the domain codes for the seven cases. The remaining cases were analyzed by pairs of the researchers. The third team member reviewed the work of the pair who generated the domain coding for the remaining seven cases. Throughout the coding process, domains were modified to best capture the data.

Abstracting the core ideas within each domain. Each researcher worked independently to capture the core idea for each domain by re-examining each transcript. Core ideas consisted of concise statements of the data that illuminated the essence of the participant’s expressed perspectives and experiences. As a group, the researchers discussed the wording of core ideas for each case until consensus was achieved.

Cross analysis. The researchers worked independently to identify commonalities of core ideas within domains across cases. Next, as a group, the research team worked to find consensus on the identified categories across cases. Aggregated core ideas were placed into categories and frequency labels were applied to indicate how general, typical, or variant the results were across cases. General frequencies refer to findings that are true for all but one of the cases (Hill et al., 2005). Typical frequencies refer to findings that are present in more than half of the cases. Variant frequencies refer to finding in at least two cases, but less than half.

Audit. An external auditor was invited to question the data analysis process and conclusions. She was not actively engaged in the conceptualization and implementation of this study, which gave the research team the benefit of having an objective perspective. The external auditor reviewed and offered suggestions about the generation of domains and core ideas, and the cross-case categories. Most feedback was given in writing. At times, feedback was discussed via telephone. The research team reviewed all auditor comments, looked for evidence supporting the suggested change, and made adjustments based on team member consensus.

Stability check. For the purpose of determining consistency, two of the 14 transcripts were randomly selected and set aside for cross-case analysis until after the remaining 12 transcripts were analyzed. This process indicated no significant changes in core domains and categories, which suggested consistency among the findings.


A final consensus identified five domains: counselor burnout, counselor self-care, faculty supervision, site supervision, and improvements (see Table 1). Cross-case categories and subcategories were developed to capture the core ideas. Following CQR procedures (Hill et al., 1997, 2005), a general category represented all or all but one of the cases (n = 13–14); a typical category represented at least half of the cases (n = 7–12); and a variant category represented less than half but more than two of the cases (n = 3 – 6). Categories with fewer than three cases were excluded from further analysis. General categories were not identified from the data.

Counselor Burnout

Experiencing burnout. Most participants reported knowledge of or having experiences with burnout. Participants identified stressors leading to burnout as a loss of enthusiasm and compassion, the struggle to balance school, work, and personal responsibilities and relationships, and difficulty delineating and separating personal and professional boundaries.

Participants described counselor burnout as no longer having compassion or enthusiasm for counseling clients. One participant defined counselor burnout as, “it seems routine or [counselors] feel like they’ve dealt with so many situations over time that they’re just kind of losing some compassion for the field or the profession.” Another participant described counselor burnout as no longer seeing the unique qualities of individuals seen in counseling:
I wouldn’t see [clients] as individuals anymore…and that’s where I get so much of it coming at me, or so many clients coming at me, that they’re no longer an individual they’re just someone that’s sitting in front of me, and when they leave they write me a check….they are not people anymore, they’re clients.
Participants often discussed a continual struggle to balance personal and professional responsibilities. One participant described burnout as foregoing pleasurable activities to focus on work-related tasks:
I can tell when I am starting to get burned out when I am focusing so much on those things that I forgo all of those things that are fun for me. So I am not working out anymore, I am not reading for fun, and I am putting off hanging out with my friends because of my school work. There’s school work that maybe doesn’t have to get done at that moment, but if I don’t work on it I’m going to be thinking about it and not having fun.
Another participant described burnout as having a hard time balancing professional and personal responsibilities stating, “I think I don’t look forward to…working with…people. I’m just kind of glad when they don’t show up. And this kind of sense that I’m losing the battle to keep things in balance.”

Boundary issues were commonly cited by participants. Several participants reported that they struggled to be assertive, set limits, maintain realistic expectations, and not assume personal responsibility for client outcomes. One participant described taking ownership of a client’s outcome and wanting to meet all the needs of her clients:
I believe part of it is internalizing the problem on myself, feeling responsible. Maybe loosing sight of my counseling skills and feeling responsible for the situation. Or feeling helpless. Also, in school counseling there tends to be a larger load of students. And this is frustrating to not meet all the needs that are out there.

Participants reported experiences with burnout and multiple stressors that lead to burnout. Participants defined counselor burnout as a loss of compassion for clients, diminished enthusiasm, difficulty maintaining a life-work balance, and struggles to maintain boundaries.

Counselor Self-Care

Self-care is purposeful and proactive. Participants were asked to describe self-care for counselors and reported that self-care requires purposeful efforts to set time aside to engage in activities outside of work that replenish energy and confidence. Most participants identified having and relying on supportive people, such as family, friends, and significant others to help them cope with stressors. Participants also identified healthy eating and individualized activities such as exercise, reading, meditation, and watching movies as important aspects of their self-care. One participant described self-care as:
Anything that can help you reenergize and refill that bucket that’s being dipped into every day. If that’s going for a walk in the park…so be it. If that’s going to Starbucks…go do it….Or something that makes you feel good about yourself, something that makes you feel confident, or making someone else feel confident….Whatever it is, something that makes you feel good about yourself and knowing that you’re doing what you need to be doing.

Participants reported that self-care requires proactive efforts to consult with supervisors and colleagues; one of the first steps is recognizing when one needs consultation. One participant explained:
I think in our program, [the faculty] were very good about letting us know that if you can’t handle something, refer out, consult. Consult was the theme. And then if you feel you really can’t handle it before you get in over your head, make sure you refer out to someone you feel is qualified.

Participants described self-care as individualized and intentional, and included activities and supportive people outside of school or work settings that replenished their energy levels. Participants also discussed the importance of identifying when counselor self-care is necessary and seeking consultation for difficult client situations.

Faculty Supervision

Faculty supervisors directly promote counselor resiliency. More than half of the participants reported that faculty supervisors directly initiated conversations about self-care. A participant explained, “Every week when we meet for practicum, [the faculty supervisor] is very adamant, ‘is everyone taking care of themselves, is anyone having trouble?’ She is very open to listening to any kind of self-care situation we might have.” Similarly, another participant stated, “Our professors have told us about the importance of self-care and they have tried to help us understand which situations are likely to cause us the most stress and fatigue.” One participant identified preventive measures discussed in supervision:
In supervision, counselor burnout is addressed from the perspective of prevention. We develop personal wellness plans, and discuss how well we live by them during supervision….Self-care is addressed in the same conversation as counselor burnout. In supervision, the mantra is good self-care is vital to avoiding burnout.

Faculty supervisors indirectly promote counselor resiliency. Participants also reported that faculty supervisors indirectly addressed counselor self-care by being flexible and supportive of participants’ efforts with clients. Participants repeatedly expressed appreciation for supervisors who processed cases and provided positive feedback and practical suggestions. One participant explained, “I know that [my supervisor] is advocating for me, on my side, and allowing me to vent, and listening and offering advice if I need it….giving me positive feedback in a very uncomfortable time.”

Further, participants stated they appreciated supervisors who actively created a safe space for personal exploration. One participant explained:
[Supervision] was really a place for us to explore all of ourselves, holistically. The forum existed for us for that purpose. [The supervisors] hold the space for us to explore whatever needs to be explored. That was the great part about internship with the professor I had. He sort of created the space, and we took it. It took him allowing it, and us stepping into the space.
Modeling self-care also is an indirect means of addressing counselor burnout and self-care. Half of the participants reported that their faculty supervisors modeled self-care. For example, faculty supervisors demonstrated boundaries with personal and professional obligations, practiced meditation, performed musically, and exercised. Conversely, participants reported that a few supervisors demonstrated a lack of personal self-care by working overtime, sacrificing time with their families for job obligations, and/or having poor diet and exercise habits.
Participants reported that faculty supervisors directly and indirectly addressed counselor burnout and self-care in supervision. Supervisors who intentionally checked in with the supervisees and used specific techniques such as wellness plans were seen as directly affecting the participants’ perspective on counselor self-care. Supervisors who were present and available, created safe environments for supervision, provided positive feedback and suggestions, and modeled self-care were seen as indirectly addressing counselor self-care. Both direct and indirect means of addressing counselor burnout and self-care were seen as influential by participants.
Site Supervision

Site supervisors did not directly address burnout or self-care. Participants reported that site supervisors rarely initiated conversations about counselor burnout or self-care. One participant reported that counselor burnout was not addressed and as a result she felt a lack of support from the supervisor:
[Site Supervisors] don’t ask about burnout though. Every time I’m bringing it up, the answers I’m getting are ‘well, when you’re in grad school you don’t get a life.’ You know, yeah, I get that, but that’s not really true, so I get a lot of those responses, ‘well, you know, welcome to the club.’
One participant stated that her site supervisor did not specifically address counselor burnout or self-care, stating “I think that is less addressed in a school setting than it is in the mental health field….I think that because we see such a small picture of our students, I think it is not as predominantly addressed.” Some participants, however, reported that their site supervisors indirectly addressed self-care by modeling positive behaviors. One participant stated:
[My site supervisor] has either structured her day or her life in such a way that no one cuts into that time unless she allows it. In that sense, she’s great at modeling what’s important…She just made a choice….She was protective. She made her priorities. Her family was a priority. Her walk was a priority, getting a little activity. Other things, house chores, may have fallen by the wayside. She had a good sense of priorities, I thought. That was good to watch.
In summary, participants reported that counselor burnout and self-care were not directly addressed in site supervision. Indeed, some participants felt a lack of support when feeling overwhelmed by counseling duties, and that school sites may address burnout and self-care less than at mental health sites. At best, self-care was indirectly modeled by site supervisors with positive coping mechanisms.
Improvements for Counselor Supervision and Training

Improvements for counselor supervision. More than half of the participants reported wanting more understanding and empathy from their supervisors. One participant complained:
A lot of my class mates have a lot on their plates, like I do, and our supervisors don’t have as much on their plate as we do. And it seems like they don’t quite get where we are coming from. They are not balancing all the things that we are balancing….a lot of the responses you get demonstrate their lack of understanding.
Another participant suggested:
I think just hearing what the person is saying. If the person is saying, I need a break, just the flexibility. Not to expect miracles, and just remember how it felt when you were in training. Just be relatable to the supervisees and try to understand what they are going through, and their point of view. You don’t have to lower your expectations to understand where we’re at…and to be honest about your expectations…flexible, honest, and understanding. If [supervisors] are those three things, it’ll be great.
Participants also suggested having counselor burnout and self-care more thoroughly addressed in supervision, including more discussions on balancing personal and professional responsibilities, roles, and stressors. One participant explained:
What would be really helpful when the semester first begins is one-on-one time that is direct about ‘how are you approaching this internship in balance with the rest of your life?’ ‘What are any issues that it would be worthwhile for me to know about?’ How sweet for the supervisor to see you as a whole person. And then to put out the invitation: the door’s always open.
Improvements for counselor training programs. More than half of the participants wanted a comprehensive and developmentally appropriate approach to self-care interwoven throughout their counselor training, with actual practice of self-care skills rather than “face talk.” One participant commented:
Acknowledge the reality that a graduate-level program is going to be a challenge, talking about that on the front end….[faculty] can’t just say you need to have self-care and expect [students] to be able to take that to the next level if we don’t learn it in a graduate program….how much better would it be for us to have learned how to manage that while we were in our program and gotten practice and feedback about that, and then that is so important of a skill to transfer and teach to our clients.
Most of the participants suggested the inclusion of concrete approaches to counselor self-care. Participants provided examples such as preparing students for their work as counselors-in-training by giving them an overview of program expectations at the beginning of their programs, and providing students with self-care strategies to deal with the added stressors of graduate school such as handling administrative duties during internship, searching for employment prior to graduation, and preparing for comprehensive exams.

Findings from this study highlight the importance of the role of supervision in promoting resilience as a protective factor against burnout among counselors-in-training. The majority of participants in this study perceived that they experienced some degree of burnout in their experiences as counselors-in-training. Participants’ perceptions of experiencing burnout are a particularly meaningful finding because it indicates that these counselors-in-training see themselves as over-taxed during their education and training. If, during their master’s programs, counselors-in-training are creating professional identities based on cognitive schemas for being a counselor, then perhaps these counselors-in-training have developed schemas for counseling that include a loss of compassion for clients, diminished enthusiasm for counseling, a lopsided balance of personal and professional responsibilities, and struggles to maintain boundaries. Counselors-in-training should be aware of these potential pitfalls as these counselors-in-training reported experiencing symptoms of burnout which were rarely addressed in supervision.

In contrast to recent literature, which suggests that counselor burnout is related to overcommitment to client outcomes (Kestnbaum, 1984; Leiter, 1991; Shovholt et al., 2001), many counselor trainees in this study did not perceive that their supervisors directly addressed their degree of personal commitment to their clients’ success in counseling. Similarly, emotional exhaustion is commonly identified as a potential hazard for burnout (Barnett et al., 2007); yet, few participants believed that their supervisors directly inquired about the degree of emotional investment in their clients. Finally, elusive measures of success in counseling are often indicated as a potential factor for burnout (Kestnbaum, 1984; Skovholt, et al., 2001). The vast majority of participants interviewed for this study did not perceive that these elusive measures of success were addressed in their supervision experiences. Supervisors who are interested in thwarting counselor burnout early in the training experiences of counselors may want to consider incorporating conversations about overcommitment to client outcomes, emotional exhaustion, degree of emotional investment, and elusive measures of success into their supervision with counselors-in-training. In an effort to promote more resilient schemas and expectations for counseling work, supervisors can take an active role in helping counselors-in-training understand the importance of awareness and protective factors to protect against a lack of compassion, enthusiasm, life-work balance, and professional boundaries, similar to the way a pilot is aware that a plane crash is possible and therefore employs purposeful and effective methods of prevention and protection.
Participants in this study conceptualized self-care as purposeful behavioral efforts. Proactive behavioral choices such as reaching out to support others are ways that many counselors engage in self-care. However, self-care cannot be solely limited to engagement in specific behaviors. Self-care also should include discussions about cognitive, emotional, and spiritual coping skills. Supervisors can help counselors-in-training create a personal framework for finding meaning in their work in order to promote hardiness, resilience, and the potential for transformation (Carswell, 2011). Because of the nature of counseling, it is necessary for counselors to be open and have the courage to be transformed. Growth and transformation are often perceived as scary and something to be avoided. Yet, growth and transformation can be embraced and understood as part of each counselor’s unique professional and personal process. Supervisors can normalize and validate these experiences and help counselors-in-training narrate their inspirations and incorporate their personal, spiritual, and philosophical frameworks in their counseling. In addition, supervisors can directly address misperceptions about counseling, which often include: “I can fix the problem,” “I am responsible for client outcomes,” “Caring more will make it better,” and “My clients will always appreciate me” (Carswell, 2011). While these approaches to supervision are personal in nature, counselors-in-training in this study reported an appreciation for time spent discussing how the personal informs the professional. This finding is consistent with Bernard & Goodyear’s (1998) model of supervision which emphasizes personal development as an essential part of supervision. Models for personal development in counselor education programs have been proposed by many professionals in the field of counseling (Myers, 1991; Myers & Williard, 2003; Witmer & Granello, 2005).
Counselors-in-training in this study reported an appreciation for supervision experiences in which their supervisors provided direct feedback and positive reinforcement. Counselors-in-training often experience performance anxiety and self-doubt (Aten et al., 2008). In an effort to diminish counselor-in-training anxiety, supervisors may provide additional structure and feedback in the early stages of supervision. Once the counselor-in-training becomes more secure, the supervisor may facilitate a supervisory relationship that promotes supervisee autonomy and higher-level thinking.
The majority of participants interviewed reported a desire for supervisors to place a greater emphasis on life-work balance and learning to cope with stress. These findings suggest the importance of counselor supervisors examining their level of expressed empathy and emphasis on preventive, as well as remedial, measures to ameliorate symptoms and stressors that lead to counselor burnout. Participants expressed a need to be more informed about additional stressors in graduate school such as administrative tasks in internship, preparing for comprehensive exams, and how to search for employment. These findings suggest the need for counselor educators and supervisors to examine how they indoctrinate counselors-in-training into training programs in order to help provide realistic expectations of work and personal sacrifice during graduate school and in the counseling field. Moreover, counselor educators and supervisors should strive to provide ongoing discussions on self-care throughout the program, specifically when students in internship are experiencing expanding roles between school, site placement, and searching for future employment. As mental health professionals, counselor educators and supervisors may also struggle with their own issues of burnout; thus, attentiveness to self-care also is recommended for those who teach and supervise counselors in training.

Findings from this study will benefit counselor educators, supervisors, and counselors-in-training; however, some limitations exist. One limitation is the lack of diversity in the sample of participants. The majority of the participants identified as Caucasian females, which is representative of the high number of enrolled females in the counseling programs approached for this study. The purpose for this study, however, was not to generalize to all counselor trainees’ experiences, but rather to shed light on how counselor perceptions of burnout and self-care are being addressed, or not, in counselor supervision.

Participant bias and recall is a second limitation of this study. Recall is affected by a participant’s ability to describe events and may be influenced by emotions or misinterpretations. This limitation was addressed by triangulating sources, including a follow-up questionnaire, reinforcing internal stability with researcher consensus on domains, core ideas, and categories, and by using an auditor to evaluate analysis and prevent researcher biases.

Counselors should be holders of hope for their clients, but one cannot give away what one does not possess (Corey, 2000). Counselors who lack enthusiasm for their work and compassion for their clients are not only missing a critical element of their therapeutic work, but also may cause harm to their clients. Counseling is challenging and can tax even the most “well” counselors. A lack of life-work balance and boundaries can add to the already stressful nature of being a counselor. Discussions in supervision about the potential for emotional exhaustion, the counselor-in-training’s degree of emotional investment in client outcomes, elusive measures of success in counseling, coping skills for managing stress, meaning-making and sources of inspiration, and personalized self-care activities are several ways supervisors can promote counselor resilience and sustainability. Supervisors should discuss the definitions of burnout, how burnout is different from stress, how to identify early signs of burnout, and how to address burnout symptoms in order to promote wellness and prevent burnout in counselors-in-training. Counselor educators and supervisors have the privilege and responsibility of teaching counselors-in-training how to take care of themselves in addition to their clients.


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E. Heather Thompson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling Western Carolina University. Melodie H. Frick is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling at West Texas A & M University. Shannon Trice-Black is an Assistant Professor at the College of William and Mary. Correspondence can be addressed to Shannon Trice-Black, College of William and Mary, School of Education, PO Box 8795, Williamsburg, VA, 23187-8795, stblack@wm.edu.

Appendix A

Interview Protocol

1. What do you know about counselor burnout or how would you define counselor burnout?
2. What do you think are possible causes of counselor burnout?
3. As counselors we often are overloaded with administrative duties which may include treatment planning, session notes, and working on treatment teams. What has this experience been like for you?
4. Counseling requires a tremendous amount of empathy which can be emotionally exhausting. What are your experiences with empathy and emotional exhaustion? Can you give a specific example?
5. How do you distinguish between feeling tired and the early signs of burnout?
6. As counselors, we sometimes become overcommitted to clients who are not as ready, motivated, or willing to engage in the counseling process. Not all of our clients will succeed in the way that we want them to. How do you feel when your clients don’t grow in the way you want them to? How has this issue been addressed in supervision?
7. What is your perception of how your supervisors have dealt with stress?
8. How has counselor burnout been addressed in supervision?
prompt: asked about, evaluated, provided reading materials, and how often
9. How have specific issues related to burnout been addressed in supervision such as: (a) over-commitment to clients who seem less motivated to change, (b) emotional exhaustion, and (c) elusive measures of success?
10. How could supervision be improved in addressing counselor burnout?
prompt: asked about, evaluated, provided reading materials, modeled by supervisor
11. What do you know about self-care or how would you define self-care for counselors?
12. What are examples of self-care, specifically ones that you use as counselors-in-training?
13. How has counselor self-care been addressed in supervision?
14. Sometimes we have to say “no.” How would you characterize your ability to say “no?” What have you learned in supervision about setting personal and professional boundaries?
15. What, if any, discussions have you had in supervision about your social, emotional, spiritual, and/or physical wellbeing? What is a specific example?
16. How could supervision be improved in addressing counselor self-care?
prompt: asked about, provided reading materials, modeled by supervisor
17. How could your overall counselor training be improved in addressing counselor burnout and counselor self-care?

Appendix B

Follow-Up Questionnaire

How would you describe counselor burnout?
How has counselor burnout been addressed in supervision?
How could supervision be improved in addressing counselor burnout?
How would you describe self-care for counselors?
How has counselor self-care been addressed in supervision?
How could supervision be improved in addressing counselor self-care?
How could your overall counselor training be improved in addressing counselor burnout and counselor self-care?