How School Counselors Can Avoid Burnout

Burnout is real. Burnout is hard. And as school counselors, we are especially susceptible to it for reasons we are all too familiar with and unfortunately, accustomed to. While many of those factors are beyond our control, the goal of this post is to provide you with actionable steps (backed by research!) for how school counselors can avoid burnout.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a pervasive psychological state experienced when professionals are unable to meet their own needs due to stress related to their job. Research tells us that school counselors are particularly at-risk for experiencing burnout when they are faced with:

  • Non-school-counseling duties
  • Fewer direct student services
  • High case loads
  • Lack of supervision or limited organizational support
  • Rigidity of school systems
  • Role diffusion (other people doing what is normally a school counselor’s job)
  • Role ambiguity (our job being unclear to ourselves or others)

Burnout looks and feels different for each person, but some general signs and symptoms are: sleep problems (fatigue, exhaustion, or insomnia), low self-esteem/feelings of effectiveness, compromised physical health, detachment, job dissatisfaction, poor performance/lack of effectiveness, or deterioration of personal life.

While many school counselors experience burnout, some also experience secondary trauma so it’s important to differentiate the two. Secondary trauma, or “compassion fatigue”, mirrors post-traumatic stress disorder and is a byproduct of working with traumatized students. Burnout, on the other hand, is not necessarily caused by exposure to trauma, but is rather a response to broader work-related stress.

What CAN we do?

So much of what causes burnout is outside of our control. There are a lot of systemic issues at play! That said, research tells us that there are some things we can do to either prevent it or to manage it.

Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts

Each of us has that inner critic. That voice in our head that is finding fault in the way we handled a certain situation or how we made a mistake with a colleague or forgot to do something. The list goes on. That voice and those negative thoughts tend to pop up especially when we don’t meet our own standards. And it can lead to burnout, particularly for counselors who tend to be perfectionists.

The problem, according to research, is not the super high (and sometimes unrealistic…) expectations we hold ourselves to. That’s actually okay! The issue is our inner critic’s thoughts. The thoughts we have when we don’t live up to our self-imposed expectations.

Thoughts like:

  • “I should have known better than to do that activity with that class. No wonder it failed.”
  • “I can’t believe I messed up that teacher workshop. I’ll never be asked to do that again.”
  • “How did I miss this happening with this student? That’s on me.”

To avoid the harmful effects of this type of self-talk, research suggests cognitive restructuring, particularly around work performance*. In other words, we want to challenge those thoughts the same way we help our students challenge theirs!

From there you can form an alternative thought. It could look something like this:

You suggested an intervention during a meeting about a student you work with. Others didn’t agree with your suggestion and the group opted for another route. You’re feeling discouraged and embarrassed and start thinking, “They must think I’m terrible at my job.” or “I should have explained it better.” You recognize the negative thought and ask yourself, “Is there evidence that supports this thought?” In going through your history with this team, you remember that you have shared many ideas that have worked well in the past. This thought then turns into, “Just because they didn’t agree with this idea doesn’t mean I don’t add value to the team.”

Here are some more reframes to try:

The idea is not to sugarcoat genuinely hard moments. It’s about balancing your own high-expectations with self-compassion. By practicing this strategy, you are gaining control of your thoughts, seeing situations more clearly, and relieving self-imposed pressure.

Cope Effectively

Coping is how we manage the stressful situations that we encounter. We can respond in several ways, each offering a different level of effectiveness. The way we cope is variable based on the timing, context, our own personality traits, etc.

Researchers sometimes have different definitions of things than we do. Because this post is rooted in what the research tells us, we are breaking down coping into the two categories found in the research: Emotion-Focused Coping (which sometimes includes Avoidant Coping) and Problem-Focused Coping.

And what the research tells us is that emotion-focused coping leads to more burnout, and problem-focused coping is correlated with lower levels of burnout.

Here’s a quick rundown of what might fall under each of these broader categories.

Emotion-Focused Coping:

Emotion-focused coping, in the research on school counselor burnout, is the type of coping counselors use to either focus on or avoid the uncomfortable feelings related to work problems. This list below is essentially a “do not do” list!

  • Affective Rumination: This is essentially about getting stuck in your feelings of disappointment, anger, sadness, or worry (or having an inability to turn off thoughts that generate these feelings.) This might look like sitting in those uncomfortable feelings for prolonged periods of time during your leisure time, or perseverating on the problem without taking steps forward. It might also be about focusing a lot on wishing things would be different.
  • Self-Blame: Placing the weight and responsibility of an entire situation solely on your own shoulders without acknowledging other contributing factors. Thinking things like, “This wouldn’t have happened if I was better at my job.” or “I must have done something wrong for them to speak to me that way.”
  • Denying Reality (basically just acting as if the problem doesn’t exist)
  • Self-Distraction: Engaging in activities or thinking about different things in order to get your mind of work problems. This is becomes a helpful strategy if/when you’re seeking out tasks/situations that are still really personally meaningful (AKA they are filling your cup, and not just about avoiding the work problems).
  • Venting
  • Disengagement (giving up in trying to deal with or cope with the problem)

As school counselors, we often have a different definition of emotion-focused! We tend to think about this in terms of strategies to regulate when we’re upset (journal, color, yoga, controlled breathing, etc.). Just popping this note in here to acknowledge that we’re talking about something a little different right now, and that those ways of coping weren’t well represented in the research.

Problem-Focused Coping:

Problem-focused coping (or task-oriented coping) is about trying to actively moving towards a solution to the problem. This approach to coping produces higher levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of burnout, and is tied to positive overall professional well-being so it’s your “to do” list!

  • Time Management
  • Challenging Negative Self-Talk/Reframing Thoughts
  • Self-Advocacy
  • Reflecting on Past Successful Problem-Solving
  • Identifying What Parts of the Problem are In vs. Out of Your Control
  • Brainstorming Solutions
  • Making a Plan
  • Asking for Advice

One bullet point from above that we want to dive into a little deeper is time management. As school counselors, it’s easy for the day to get away from us and to get swept up in the chaos. When this happens, it can lead to feelings of overwhelm and discontentment.

One thing we can do to avoid this (as much as possible) is to plan ahead. This means you intentionally look at what you have scheduled, what needs to get completed, and appropriately prioritize those tasks. When we do this effectively, we get an increased sense of control, more time to be present, and reduced decision fatigue.

Identify Positive Supports

While we do not want to get caught in a negative cycle within our social support system, it is important to find positive support to help guide us through the problems we encounter on a regular basis. We cannot tackle them alone!

This might look like a counseling colleague you respect and get along with. It could be a friend or family member in a related field (therapist, teacher, etc.). You might also find that someone in an unrelated field is able to give really objective “outsider” advice when you’re problem solving.

And research tells us it’s beneficial to find this support within a supervisory relationship because supervision is negatively correlated to burnout (which means having supervision is a good thing!). As a school counselor, you may or may not have access to a counseling director or someone in a similar position who you can lean on in this way. If you do not, you could create a similar relationship with other professionals like:

  • Your school psychologist or school social worker
  • A professor from graduate school
  • Someone in your district with more experience than you that you look to as a mentor
  • Someone in your state school counseling association
Make Time for Positive Work Reflections

There are a million moments, big and small, throughout the day that we can find to celebrate, but that can be challenging when our brain is preoccupied by the hard stuff. When thinking of ways to combat burnout, creating a ritual that focuses on those brighter moments can help us frame our job and our performance in a positive way. This ritual can look like a quick journal entry, a conversation with another person, or just a simple mental note.

Some questions you can ask yourself to guide this reflection are:

  • “What made me smile today?”
  • “What is something I was proud of today?”
  • “What did I learn today?”
  • “What strengths did I exhibit today?”
  • “Did I make progress toward a goal today?”
Define What Work-Life Balance Means to You

It is often expressed that we should “leave work at work”, but total detachment from our role and the problems that occur does not predict positive professional well-being. Instead, we want to find a balance of both our time and our mental energy. This balance will look different for everyone so there aren’t any rules or a “right” or “wrong” way to do it. It’s all about finding the right balance for you, which is a journey that consists of trial and error and frequent adjustments.

Get Appropriate Support

As school counselors, we see the value in mental health treatment. Unfortunately, we sometimes think that we don’t need (or shouldn’t need) it for ourselves. Burnout and its symptoms can be overwhelming. It’s okay to ask for help when you need it. We can’t help others if we don’t first help ourselves!


Burnout is real, and it is hard, especially during certain times of the year. It’s especially hard when many of the contributing factors are beyond your control. There are still some things in your control, though, and we hope this post offered you strategies you can use.

how school counselors can avoid burnout

Consider identifying one or two of the strategies you would like to try. Then, make a plan to actually do them! Whether you write them in a planner, add a calendar alert, or have an accountability buddy, create a reliable system to make sure you are taking steps to prevent burnout.

Research References:

Fye, H. J., Gnilka, P.B., and McLaulin, S. E. (2018). “Perfectionism and School Counselors: Differences in Stress, Coping, and Burnout.” Journal of Counseling & Development, 96, 34-360.

Kim, N., & Lambie, G. W. (2018). Burnout and implications for professional school counselors. The Professional Counselor, 8(3), 277–294.

Mullen, P. R., Backer, A., Chae, N., & Li, H. (2020). School Counselors’ Work-Related Rumination as a Predictor of Burnout, Turnover Intentions, Job Satisfaction, and Work Engagement. Professional School Counseling.

Wilkerson, K. (2009). An examination of burnout among school counselors guided by stress-strain-coping theory. Journal of Counseling & Development, 87(4), 428–437.

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and

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and meeting the unique needs of all
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