4 ways to stop campus counselors from burning out

91% of campus counseling center directors and clinicians reported COVID-driven burnout during the fall semester
By: | January 20, 2021
Campus mental health counselors experiencing burnout are at a greater risk for developing depressions or other mental or physical health conditions. (GettyImages/Richard Clark)Campus mental health counselors experiencing burnout are at a greater risk for developing depressions or other mental or physical health conditions. (GettyImages/Richard Clark)

College students’ surging demand for mental health care during COVID is raising concerns about burnout among campus counseling staff, a new report shows.

A full 91% of campus counseling center directors and clinicians reported experiencing COVID-driven burnout during the fall 2020 semester, according to a survey of 120 U.S. colleges and universities by Mantra Health, a student mental health care provider.

Digging deeper into the details, 40% of clinicians surveyed said they would benefit from a reduced workload and more than half of counseling center directors reported not having enough energy for after-work leisure activities.

Staff camaraderie and connections, a culture of openness to discuss stress, and more vacation would all alleviate burnout, both directors and clinicians said.


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Mental health providers experiencing burnout are at a greater risk for developing depression or other mental or physical health conditions. It can also increase turnover, the report found.

At the same time, an October 2020 study by American Campus Communities found that 85% of college students reported feeling more stress and anxiety compared to one year ago.

“In order to decrease burnout during this critical time for college counseling centers we must remember that wellness activities and other supports are essential, but will not be effective if people are exhausted and can’t fully participate in them,” said Harry Rockland-Miller, an author of the study and director emeritus of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“A workplace characterized by mutual support and connection allows staff to move forward even with the inherent stress of this work,” Rockland-Miller added.

The report details several concept for reducing counselor burnout:

  1. Togetherness: Counseling staff should feel comfortable seeking help from leadership when problems arise. Counselors should also make sure to nourish personal relationships with colleagues and find ways to collaborate. Periodic staff retreats can also build a sense of togetherness.
  2. Openness: Ensure staff members do not feel judged when they seek help from supervisors. Directors can also set clear policies to reduce uncertainty about workflow or other protocols. Counselors should also try to connect with professional networks.
  3. Boundaries: Ensure staff have a safe space to articulate needs and concerns. Clinicians and directors also must establish a work-life balance that leaves time for outside interests while prioritizing sleep, exercise and proper nutrition. Supervisors should encourage staff to take breaks, even during busy periods.
  4. Increasing meaning: Clinicians and directors should capitalize on their strengths rather than fixating on weaknesses. They can also find ways to express themselves and collaborate with colleagues who share goals and values. Finally, finding pride in the institution and work can improve morale and a sense of purpose.

“Ultimately, there is no substitute for rest when exhaustion is the problem—and that bears repeating,” the authors conclude. “There is literally no other answer to exhaustion than engaging in rest and restoration.”


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