Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Counselor Wellness and Impairment: A National Survey

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Counselor Wellness and Impairment: A National Survey

Article excerpt

Counselor wellness has a direct impact on the quality of services clients receive, but little is known about the overall wellness of counselors. This study begins the process of better understanding counselor wellness by examining responses to a national survey that assessed both counselor wellness and impairment variables.


Counselor wellness is a factor that seems to serve as a linchpin in the counselor's world. Counselors who are unwell (stressed, distressed, or impaired) will not be able to offer the highest level of counseling services to their clients, and they are likely to begin experiencing a degradation of their quality of life in other domains as well (physical, social, emotional, spiritual, etc.). It seems that the correlate is true as well: When counselors take better care of themselves, there is a positive effect on their ability to meet the needs of their clients. Unfortunately, counselor wellness is an area that has, to date, received very little attention in the literature (Myers, Mobley, & Booth, 2003). An examination of all of the influences on counselor wellness is clearly beyond the scope of this article, so the review of existing literature is organized around research relating to personal variables and work-related variables.


Personal Wellness Variables

Some of the personal variables that are related to counselor wellness and effectiveness include the counselors' subjective perception of their own wellness and manifestations of impairment, such as burnout, compassion fatigue, or vicarious traumatization. In one study examining the effectiveness of psychologists, almost 60% of respondents admitted to having worked when they were too distressed to be effective (Pope, Tabachnick, & Keith-Spiegel, 1987). Similarly, Guy, Poelstra, and Stark (1989) found that 36.7% of psychologists in their sample reported that their own personal distress negatively affected the quality of services they provided. Almost 5% of those respondents agreed that the distress was serious enough to result in inadequate client care.

Burnout is a syndrome characterized by dimensions of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment (Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1996). Counselors are particularly vulnerable to burnout because of the intensive nature of the work and because of the psychologically intimate relationships counselors develop with clients through empathy (Skovholt, 2001). Although burnout occurs in the counselor, it is rooted in the environment. Maslach (2003) identified several environmental variables that lead to counselor burnout, including work overload, lack of control, unsupportive (or unhealthy) work peers, and ineffective (or punitive) supervisors, which can all lead to increased risk of or a hastening of burnout. A full discussion of these characteristics can be found in Maslach's (2003) Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Counseling professionals need be concerned about burnout because of the impact on the personal and professional life of the counselor across domains. Maslach explored the impact of burnout, noting that clients are affected because the distressed counselor exhibits decreased empathy, dehumanizes clients, and behaves in a less professional manner (e.g., frequent tardiness).

Other variants in the impairment realm are compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization. Figley (2002) described compassion fatigue as "a function of bearing witness to the suffering of others" (p. 1435). This definition is relevant to counselors in any area of the profession. The process of connecting with clients who are in pain has an impact on the counselor. Figley summed up this process and the consequence, stating,

   In our effort to view the world from the perspective of the
   suffering we suffer. The meaning of compassion is to bear
   suffering. … 
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