Therapist Burnout (And Why it Matters to Clients)

There is a lot of information available for counsellors encouraging their self-care.  Wouldn’t this come naturally for therapists?  Oftentimes, the answer is no.  Sometimes therapists become so involved in the rhythm of helping others that they forget about themselves.

But, as important as the topic of therapist self-care is, here I’d like to explore why it is in clients’ best interest to understand what counsellor burnout looks like so that steps can be taken to avoid it in the therapy relationship (at least until the counsellor can recover from the burnout and get back to doing what she or he does best).  It is also important for clients, or potential clients to know the potential risks of working with a burned out therapist.  If you’ve been to counselling before, or had an initial consultation, you may have even suspected burnout but weren’t sure if you were right.

Before getting into signs and symptoms, the point needs to be made that the presence of one or two does not necessarily constitute burnout but may be related to other factors, such as therapist illness or circumstances in their personal lives. It’s also important to assess (A) if these symptoms are demonstrated by the therapist consistently (B) are a one-off occurrence and (C) to consider the severity of the symptoms; burnout is on a continuum.

Ten Symptoms of Burnout

1. The Counsellor Has Stopped Listening – Often you will have a gut feeling telling you that the counsellor didn’t hear or understand what you were expressing. The therapist may ask you to explain the same thing several times, or worse, not ask you to repeat yourself, pretending to understand.  Sometimes this may be related to therapist fatigue (not equivalent to burnout).

2. The Counsellor Seems Frustrated if You Do Not Follow Their Advice or they are giving significantly more advice than usual.

3. The Counsellor Jumps to Quick Solutions over Taking the Time to Explore and Understand Your Concerns

4. The Counsellor is Negative – This may manifest as a general pessimism, bitterness, cynicism or a negative view of humanity/people’s motives

5. The Counsellor Exhibits a General Lack of Patience – You might feel hurried in a session or there may be the implication that you are not making progress quickly enough.

6. The Counsellor Seems Emotionally Vacant – There is minimal response from the therapist (lack of nodding, poor eye contact, a dearth of questions) and you may feel little rapport or emotional connection.  The expression “ships passing in the night,” may come to mind.

7. The Counsellor Takes a More Passive Than Usual Stance During the Sessions – This can manifest in terms of lack of appropriate feedback, failure to summarize themes in the session or no thought given to assigning homework, especially if homework is important to you.

8. The Counsellor is Tired or Falling Asleep – How frequently is this occurring?  If it’s once in a blue moon, perhaps the counsellor didn’t get adequate rest the night before or had a particularly busy day.  More than occasionally?  It’s a problem.

9. Repeated Cancellations / Counsellor Calls in Sick Frequently – Occasional sickness is normal and to be expected.  Occasional cancellations from the counsellor can happen too.  If this is frequent, then again it’s a problem.

10. Counsellor is Repeatedly Late For Sessions – The counsellor may be late in arriving for work or is consistently not able to wrap up sessions on time, leaving you warming a seat in the waiting room.

Why Burnout is a problem

You think you’ve accurately identified a burned out therapist and you know that being their client feels wrong. Still, you may not know why their burnout makes you feel this way inside.

Let’s face it: counsellors do their best work when they take pleasure in what they do, enjoy people, believe in the value of counselling (and have been through it themselves), take time off, look after themselves and pursue outside activities and relationships that nourish them.  They also know how to reach out for support when they need it, and they value the act of doing so.

While most therapists would not voluntarily elect to be burned out, the implications for clients are enormous:

  • You have the right to be heard and to have your story witnessed by a caring counselling professional.  When we enter counselling we make ourselves emotionally vulnerable to another human being.  Your story must be treated with great care, and you, with respect.
  • Burnout drives a stake in the heart of the counselling relationship – the founder of humanistic or person-centred therapy, Carl Rogers, believed that emapthy, warmth, genuineness and unconditional positive regard were the cornerstones in the therapeutic relationship.
  • If your counsellor is not listening, how can he or she actually help you?  People are not stereotypes where pat answers are all that’s needed for particular problems. Beware of platitudes and “canned” responses.
  • Your time is valuable. A counsellor being repeatedly late for sessions or canceling frequently only wastes your time.
  • The counsellor should be helping you to help yourself, not giving you all the answers.  Doing this deprives you of the opportunity to take ownership of your own solutions. You’ll always feel that you need someone else to create meaningful change.  A good counsellor facilitates this process within yourself.

What you can do

Bring it up – Therapists should always be open to client feedback and be willing to explore your concerns in the session. This may also indirectly pave the way to address more challenging personal issues in therapy: if your counsellor can handle overt dialogue about the way they perform therapy you may feel comfortable discussing unresolved issues that you were afraid you might be judged about.

Find another therapist – ask trusted friends, relatives or health professionals for a recommendation and ask why they found the counsellor helpful.

Online reviews of counsellors are generally limited, given that many people want to protect their privacy around seeking counselling. Testimonials should also be taken with a grain of salt because they speak to very specific client situations. For this reason, as well as the potential that members of the public are potentially more vulnerable to the power of testimonials when they are in crisis, some professional colleges prohibit therapists from using them on their websites or on promotional materials.  And yes, it’s still a good idea to look at the counsellor’s website or webpage and get a sense for their message. Is it one that resonates for you?

Counselling can have a significant impact on your life: take the time to find a sincere, skilled therapist so that the impact can be a positive one.