Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Personal and Contextual Predictors of Mental Health Counselors' Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Academic journal article Journal of Mental Health Counseling

Personal and Contextual Predictors of Mental Health Counselors' Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Article excerpt

This study applied transactional stress and coping theory to explore the contributions of counselor gender, years of experience, perceived working conditions, personal resources of mindfulness, use of coping strategy, and compassion satisfaction to predict compassion fatigue and burnout in a national sample of 213 mental health counselors. Multiple regression analyses revealed that in this sample while perceived working conditions, mindfulness, use of coping strategy, and compassion satisfaction accounted for only 31.1% of the variance in compassion fatigue, these factors explained 66.9% of the variance in burnout. Counselors who reported less maladaptive coping, higher mindfulness attitudes and compassion satisfaction, and more positive perceptions of their work environment reported less burnout. The utility of these findings in understanding the development of counselor burnout and compassion fatigue are discussed, as are directions for future research.

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It has long been observed that qualities that make counselors effective with their clients--such as empathy, compassion, and caring--may also leave them vulnerable to such negative outcomes as compassion fatigue and burnout (Figley, 1995; Lawson, Venart, Hazier, & Kottler, 2007; Pines & Maslach, 1978). Burnout was first recognized as a psychological problem among healthcare and social service professionals in the 1970s (Pines & Maslach, 1978). Extensive research led to burnout being defined as a psychological syndrome that develops in response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stress and is characterized by three features: emotional exhaustion; depersonalization (a defense mechanism for caregivers and service providers to gain emotional distance from clients); and feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of personal accomplishment (Maslach, 2003; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). While burnout was originally conceptualized as a response to job stress produced by the demands of helping clients, it was quickly recognized that organizational factors also contribute to burnout (Maslach, 2003).

Research on compassion fatigue emerged from observations of psychological problems among caregivers in the human service sector (Figley, 1995, 2002). Like burnout, compassion fatigue was primarily conceptualized as a response to the stress of interpersonal interactions. However, unlike burnout, compassion fatigue was viewed as a response to working with traumatized clients. Figley (1995) was the first to formulate the concept after noticing the unique work conditions and experiences of those working with traumatized individuals in the mental health profession and others who assume caregiving roles (e.g., families, medical personnel). Figley (1998, 2002) also described compassion fatigue as manifesting with exposure to persons who have been traumatized. Hence, the term compassion fatigue has often been used to describe secondary traumatic stress (Bride, Radey, & Figley, 2007). While some of these components are also elements of burnout, the core symptoms of compassion fatigue and secondary traumatic stress are similar and consist of flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts (Galek, Flannelly, Greene, & Kudler, 2011). Compassion fatigue is thought to be a unique occupational hazard for those working with trauma victims (Devilly, Wright, & Varker, 2009). Moreover, due to the prevalence of traumatic experiences, many mental health counselors may provide clinical services to clients who have experienced trauma (Williams, Helm, & Clemens, 2012).

Understanding how contextual factors may contribute to compassion fatigue and burnout can help address a continuing challenge for counselors: protecting their own well-being while providing excellent client care. Because the stakes are high, researchers have sought to clarify how negative outcomes occur by examining specific aspects of the work. A number of researchers have examined the relationship between compassion fatigue or burnout and the institutional or organizational contexts in which mental health professionals work (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001; Lent & Schwartz, 2012). …

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