The Contribution of Ego Development Level to Burnout in School Counselors: Implications for Professional School Counseling

By Lambie, Glenn W. | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Contribution of Ego Development Level to Burnout in School Counselors: Implications for Professional School Counseling


Lambie, Glenn W., Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


The purpose of this article is to report the findings of a national survey study of school counseling professionals to determine if higher ego development contributes to a lower degree of burnout. Additionally, this article provides current data relating to professional school counselors' (PSCs') levels of ego development, burnout, and burnout's three respective dimensions (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal accomplishment). In addition, PSCs' feelings concerning the amount of occupational support they receive relative to these three dimensions of burnout are reported.

PSCs experience high levels of stress because of multiple job demands, role ambiguity, large caseloads, and lack of clinical supervision (Lambie, 2002). Prolonged periods of stress, in turn, can produce burnout, leading to deterioration in the quality of service provided (Lambie, 2006; Maslach, 2003; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Thus, counselor burnout appears to correlate with counselors' negative attitudes toward their clients (Ackerley, Burnell, Holder, & Kurdek, 1988). Clearly, the potential consequences of burnout are very serious for PSCs, students, peers, parents/guardians, and the school system at large (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996).

Failure to address burnout in counselor preparation programs is similar to not addressing other ethical counseling issues, such as client suicide, violence, and abuse. All are costly to clients, counselors, and society, both in human and in financial terms. Counselor educators are in the position of teaching prospective counselors about burnout prior to their encountering the multiple stresses of the job. Indeed, counselor preparation programs and clinical supervisors have an ethical responsibility to inform counseling students and practicing clinicians about the burnout phenomenon and to work with students/supervisees to help them develop effective coping skills to manage the occupational stress inherent in counseling.

Self-awareness and adaptivity are defenses against burnout, and ego development is an essential component in the development of an adaptive, self-aware counselor. For example, research has shown that counselors at more mature levels of ego functioning are better able to recognize that others may differ in their interpretations of interpersonal and social situations, while showing significantly higher levels of empathy (Carlozzi, Gaa, & Liberman, 1983). Additionally, counselors with higher ego levels are cognitively more capable of conceptualizing the complexity of situations and tend to use a reality-orientated coping style rather than a reality-distorting defense mechanism (Manners & Durkin, 2000). As a result, they accommodate to challenging experiences more easily, thereby reducing possible burnout.

Counselor preparation programs and clinical supervisors can help promote ego development in their students/supervisees, thereby improving their cognitive and socioemotional coping abilities and better equipping them with the necessary qualities to cope with occupational stress. Specifically, research suggests that counselor educators can work to promote ego development of counseling students by structuring the educational environment to be one level higher than the student's current level of functioning (Manners & Durkin, 2002; Turiel, 1966). Attention to promoting psychological development and burnout prevention should be continuous throughout the counselor preparation program, beginning with introductory course work and continuing in practicum and internship experiences.

* Ego Development

Loevinger's (1976) developmental theory defines ego as the core component of one's personality, incorporating elements of cognitive, self, interpersonal, character, and moral development. The ego develops toward increasingly more sophisticated levels of meaning making, mastery, and integration. Ego development is a progressive differentiation between "subject" and "object," that is, the aspect of self one controls and the aspects one is controlled by (Blasi, 1998; Kegan, Lahey, & Souvaine, 1998).

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