Guest Post

Understanding Burnout Among College Counsellors and How to Beat It!

POSTED ON 06/07/2024 BY Ramya Modukuri and Namita Mehta

Prioritise self-care for lasting well-being.

In the demanding world of college counselling, where empathy and compassion are daily essentials, burnout can quietly creep in, sapping energy and passion. While counsellors devote their lives to helping others navigate challenges, they often find themselves vulnerable to stress, emotional exhaustion, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment. In this blog, we delve into the multifaceted nature of burnout among college counsellors—what it looks like, why it happens, and, most importantly, how you can overcome this challenge. Whether you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout yourself or seeking ways to support a colleague, our insights and practical strategies will empower you to reclaim balance and joy in your professional life. Join us as we explore the path to resilience and well-being in the noble profession of counselling.

What is the role of a college counsellor?

A college counsellor plays a crucial role in guiding students through the intricate process of applying to colleges. Beyond merely assisting with applications, a counsellor’s responsibilities are diverse and deeply impactful. College counsellors provide a comprehensive overview of the global education landscape so that students and their families make informed decisions. They also assist with crafting a balanced college list, ensuring it aligns with the student’s aspirations, strengths, and realistic chances of admission. College counsellors also advise on majors and academic paths, helping students align their academic interests with future career goals.

Managing application components is a significant part of a college counsellor’s job. They compile and track all necessary components to ensure students stay on schedule. They support students at every step of the application journey, from ensuring that application forms are filled out correctly and assisting students in crafting compelling essays to guiding students in demonstrating interest and who to approach for recommendation letters. 

What makes college counselling a demanding profession? 

Behind the structured façade of a college counsellor’s responsibilities lies a labyrinth of complexities that can make the role incredibly demanding and stressful. The job entails far more than guiding students through applications. It involves managing a delicate balance of emotional, logistical, and interpersonal challenges that often go unspoken. Here are some of the key complexities that contribute to the demanding nature of this profession:

  • Frequent revisions and decision reversals: College counselling often involves continuous back-and-forth communications. Even after finalising a college list, students and parents may revisit and question decisions, creating a sense of starting from scratch. 
  • Emotional decision-making by parents: Parents, driven by fear and conflicting advice, may constantly question the college counsellor’s guidance. This repetitive need to defend decisions can be exhausting.
  • Last-minute adjustments and changes: Despite early planning and clear deadlines, students frequently miss timelines, especially amidst the stress of their final year of high school. College counsellors often work late hours to accommodate last-minute changes and ensure applications are completed on time. Additionally, the application process is usually subject to last-minute changes and requests from students and parents. Even after meticulously completing an application, unexpected questions or suggestions can arise, requiring revisions. 
  • Mediating between parents and students: College counsellors often act as intermediaries between students and their parents, who may have differing expectations and goals. This role requires balancing support and assertiveness.
  • Emotional and academic support: Once a rapport is built, students may share personal issues beyond college applications. For instance, a student may go through a breakup while working on their application, requiring the college counsellor to offer emotional support or be empathetic when work is not completed on time. 
  • Navigating mood swings: Working with adolescents means dealing with fluctuating moods. One session might be positive, while the other one may not. Adapting to these emotional rollercoasters requires considerable energy and flexibility.
  • Managing parent expectations: Often parents believe their child is the best and they insist on applying to top-heavy colleges. Giving them a reality check while not completely demotivating them can be a challenge.

What causes burnout among college counsellors? 

Navigating the demanding landscape of college counselling can take a toll on even the most resilient professionals. Burnout among college counsellors is not rare; it’s a pervasive issue stemming from several factors that strain their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Let’s explore the intricacies of these factors and understand how they contribute to burnout: 

1) Heavy caseloads

In many educational institutions, the counsellor-to-student ratio is unbalanced, with each college counsellor responsible for many students. According to the American School Counselor Association, the counsellor-to-student ratio is 1:408. Beyond assisting Grade 12 students with college applications, counsellors also engage with students from Grades 9 to 11 and their parents. Moreover, they have additional tasks such as guiding teachers in writing letters of recommendation, organising university fairs and information sessions, compiling placement reports, and sometimes even teaching a subject. This overwhelming workload leaves counsellors with little time for self-care and can contribute to burnout.

2) Lack of boundaries leading to a lack of work-life balance

Due to the sheer volume of responsibilities, many counsellors find themselves bringing work home or attending evening and weekend sessions conducted by universities to stay abreast of trends and requirements. Most counsellors work around 45 hours per week. Self-employed counsellors often exceed this, leading to exhaustion. Schools do not allocate adequate time during the day for students to meet counsellors one-on-one, prompting counsellors to schedule evening meetings. Independent college counsellors face more challenges maintaining boundaries, as clients may demand meetings at unreasonable hours or excessive sessions. Blurring boundaries between work and personal life exacerbates burnout among college counsellors. 

3) Inadequate resources

Insufficient technological and organisational resources contribute to burnout among college counsellors. Manual processes consume copious amounts of valuable time and energy, such as generating transcripts from disparate spreadsheets, leading to inefficiency and frustration. While some schools have automated certain tasks, many still rely on old-fashioned methods, placing undue strain on counsellors.

4) Extremely high targets

The pressure to meet exceedingly high targets, particularly in the context of independent educational consultants (IECs), adds to counsellor burnout. IECs often work with students aiming for highly selective colleges where the application process is holistic and competitive. Helping students craft compelling application narratives requires substantial time and effort, mainly when students apply to multiple “reach” schools. Balancing the expectations of students and their families with the reality of their academic profiles can be emotionally draining for counsellors.

5) Limited autonomy and lack of recognition

The rigid hierarchical structure of educational institutions limits counsellors’ autonomy and stifles innovation. Counsellors who feel undervalued or constrained in implementing new ideas are prone to demotivation and burnout. A lack of recognition for their additional efforts exacerbates disillusionment and disengagement.

6) Inability to say no to “free work”

Counsellors often struggle to decline requests for “free work” from friends, family, and acquaintances, driven by their innate desire to help others. While such opportunities may offer personal satisfaction and networking benefits, they come at the expense of the counsellor’s well-being and time with their families. Balancing professional commitments with personal boundaries is essential for preventing burnout.

How can college counsellors recognise the signs of burnout?

People become counsellors because it is rewarding, allowing them to impact young people’s lives significantly. It is incredibly fulfilling when students are admitted to their top-choice colleges, but even more so when they return to share the beautiful experiences and growth they have achieved in college. Stressful times are inevitable during the peak application period, but counsellors understand that this is temporary and that they need to persevere. Usually, they put their heads down, work hard until D-day, and power through the stressful period. However, when you no longer see the light at the end of the tunnel during a busy period, it may be a sign that you are on the verge of burnout. Here are some other signs to look out for:

1) Emotional exhaustion

When you no longer feel interested in learning more about your students or engaging in meaningful conversations to understand them better, you indicate emotional fatigue. The student-counsellor relationship requires deep connections and understanding. If you take shortcuts, ask only for the bare minimum information, or feel indifferent towards your students’ stories, you may be experiencing emotional exhaustion.

 2) Depersonalisation

Depersonalisation occurs when you “stick to the plan” rigidly without engaging with students and their families to explore their unique needs and aspirations. If you feel irritated by repetitive questions or resist deviating from your pre-planned strategies, it suggests mental fatigue. A tendency to apply a cookie-cutter approach and be inflexible while handling individual cases means you are operating mechanically rather than empathetically, which is a sign of burnout.

3) Reduced productivity

If tasks that used to take a certain amount of time now take significantly longer, it may indicate mental exhaustion. For example, if you could have previously reviewed two CommonApp forms in one night but now struggle to get through one consistently, this slowdown is a clear sign of burnout. Consistent difficulty in maintaining your usual pace and quality of work points to a need for rest and recovery.

4) Physical manifestations

Fatigue, insomnia, disturbed sleep, shortness of breath, and frequent headaches are common manifestations of burnout. If you cannot sleep due to worries about what a parent said or if you are experiencing persistent headaches or exhaustion regardless of rest, these are warning signs. Physical symptoms often reflect underlying stress and burnout.

5) Behavioural manifestations

Constant feelings of negativity, emotional outbursts, and irritability are red flags. While the college application process can be inherently stressful, persistent negativity and frequent complaints about the process or the behaviour of students and parents indicate mental exhaustion. If negativity becomes your norm, it’s a clear signal that you are experiencing burnout and need to address it.

How can college counsellors combat burnout?

Burnout among college counsellors is a real and prevalent issue, but it’s not insurmountable. Armed with effective strategies, they can effectively combat it and reclaim the balance and joy in their professional lives. Here are practical approaches to fortify against burnout and nurture resilience in the noble profession of counselling: 

1) Set boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries is paramount in preventing or reversing burnout. School counsellors must initiate a candid conversation with their institution’s administration and negotiate realistic time allocations for their duties. Put these agreements in writing to ensure clarity and accountability. Independent counsellors should define boundaries, such as work hours, application limits, response times, and communication channels, within contractual agreements. Setting internal deadlines for students and communicating consequences for non-compliance can also help maintain boundaries effectively.

2) Get efficient

Many fall into inefficiency traps due to improper time management or a lack of awareness about productivity tools and techniques. Embrace tools like AI to streamline routine tasks and dedicate sufficient time to deep, focused work. Applying the Pareto Principle can help identify and prioritise the most impactful tasks to maximise productivity. Assessing your workflow and identifying areas for improvement can lead to significant efficiency gains.

3) Learn to say “No”

Saying “no” can be challenging, especially for those inclined to help others. However, being discerning about commitments and learning to decline non-essential tasks are crucial for preserving mental and emotional well-being. 

4) Maintain emotional distance

While empathy is a cornerstone of effective counselling, it’s essential to maintain emotional distance to prevent burnout. Recognise the fine line between empathy and emotional investment in students’ successes and failures. Strive for emotional stability by practising self-awareness and mindfulness, balancing empathy with professional detachment.

5) Make time for other activities: 

Burnout is often higher when passion and profession overlap extensively. Consciously carve out time for activities outside of work to recharge and foster well-being. Schedule activities like yoga, spending time with family, pursuing hobbies, or indulging in leisure activities. Prioritise self-care to replenish mental and emotional reserves and mitigate the risk of burnout.

Understanding and addressing burnout is crucial for maintaining your well-being and efficacy as a college counsellor. By setting clear boundaries, improving efficiency, learning to say no, and maintaining emotional distance, you can combat burnout and continue to provide invaluable support to your students. 

This blog was co-written by Namita Mehta and Ramya Modukuri for LinkedIn. While Namita is the President of The Red Pen, Ramya is the Director of Future Pathways India at International Schools Partnership Limited, where she leads a team of dedicated counsellors.