Who Counsels the Counselors? Burnout on a Youth Community Counselor

Editor's Note: This blog is part of Frayme's BIPOC Series in which voices that have been historically/presently silenced or dismissed are given a platform. The BIPOC series was created to highlight lived/living experiences, successes, failures and strengths of the BIPOC community maneuvering the YMHSU system. These stories are their truths and realities. The author for this blog has chosen to use a pseudonym.

Early in my life I received support from community workers, which is why I ultimately chose the path of becoming a helper and counsellor. As someone from a marginalized community, I wanted to uplift others and give back. By sharing my experiences, I hope to shine a light on the value of compassionate counsellors in the youth mental health community, while also highlighting the cracks in the non-profit system that pose a risk to this field of work. I believe competent counsellors are needed to foster healthy communities, but there are not enough safeguards in place to protect workers and ensure they have longevity in their career.

Sharing my experiences of workplace bullying and burnout has been therapeutic. Many individuals in the helping profession experience these challenges in silence, behind closed doors, because they may want to maintain an image as the “strong ones” or “helpers”, or simply can’t afford to lose their jobs. Sharing my experiences will allow others to relate and identify red flags in their own life and perhaps take steps to take care of themselves before they flee a profession that desperately needs long term, committed professionals.

The excitement of my new beginning

My introduction to the true meaning of burnout came shortly after acquiring my dream role as a community counsellor. I worked for an organization that provided counselling and support programs for newcomers to Canada including youth. The organization was primarily comprised of counsellors who provided one on one support as well as group programming such as summer camps, youth leadership programs, skills training, in house English classes and various recreational programs.

The guilt of self-care

I recall learning about self-care during my social work training. Instructors would regularly warn students that many leave the field after several years. We were taught to notice the signs of burnout and basic methods of self-care. I recall burnout being related to the emotional difficulty of the work. I don’t recall learning how the lack of adequate funding had strained the system to the point that most new counsellors were often underpaid and doing the amount of work that would require two or three employees to do. In my work with the community organization, self-care in team meetings was vocalized simply as “take care of yourself” or “take time off if you need to” or “manage your caseload better”. It was an afterthought because the needs of our clients were so large, and the pressure from management to maintain high numbers of clients for funding resulted in staff feeling too anxious to call in sick.

Systemic frustration

It only took a few weeks to realize we were understaffed. Having a caseload of 300+ clients was tough. They were often newcomers with limited English skills and were experiencing residual trauma from hardship in their home country. They had a multitude of socioeconomic disadvantages as well as ongoing mental health issues. Many youth I worked with had to adjust to the culture in Canada while going home to a poverty-stricken family who depended on them for English translation as well as finances. Many youth prioritized looking for a part time job in addition to schooling. Some of them were bullied or isolated at school and had no community networks. Our organization became a hub and safe space for youth to make friends, acquire volunteer hours, improve their English, develop leadership skills and speak to a counsellor who could provide a listening ear.

One of the most beneficial ways we helped youth and families was through teaching them to be resourceful. I believe that providing English classes, computer & digital literacy skills and group programing to cultivate friendships, are some of the most helpful things these types of organizations can do. The English language is key to navigating their new country, digital literacy makes them resourceful, and developing lifelong friendships gives them community, emotional support and stability.

I felt like I was a personal assistant to all my clients. I loved it until a mounting pressure grew from the high number of clients. In my organization, funding was tied to the amount of clients, and therefore the more we had, the “better off” our organization was. I will never forget the moment when a fellow community partner turned to me at an event with anxious eyes and asked me to collaborate with her in order to send our clients to each other’s organizations, to meet our monthly quotas and keep our jobs. Management’s top goal was new clients because more clients equaled more funding. We still supported our clients through the looming threat of losing our jobs because of unmet quotas.

Personal limitations

I loved the work of building community partnerships, organizing events for youth and supporting vulnerable families. The work itself is necessary and somewhat worth some sacrifice for the benefit of others. I learned that it was okay to have limitations. For example, there had been a habit of allowing drop-in clients to come for meetings without an appointment, even though counsellors are often pre-booked all day. This had become a regular burden on all counsellors, resulting in long wait times. Staff often worked beyond office hours. One day, I decided to start enforcing strict limits with my clients and stopped taking drop-ins. This was an empowering example to other counselors. It showed them they could be firm and respectful in turning people away. If it was a crisis, we still made exceptions.

Workplace bullying

The most encouraging part of counselling was support from my team. As busy as we were, we all supported each other. Unfortunately, I still encountered workplace bullying for the first time. I often had meetings with the director where they regularly threatened to terminate my employment if I did not increase my quotas. I found out other counselors had experienced the same treatment for years. I often worked 70+ hours a week with unpaid overtime because I loved the work itself and felt my clients needed me. Despite this, our manager would regularly yell, criticize and claim that we didn’t take our roles seriously or work hard enough. Senior management needs to provide a supportive, understanding and encouraging work culture in these types of organizations. Unfortunately, personalities are hard to change irrespective of training and education. Because of this, I firmly support the idea of mandating HR departments in non-profits and the creation of a union for unregulated community workers.

What next?

It took me years to accept that I had residual anxiety and a fear of employers due to my experience as a counsellor. It was my 2019 new year’s resolution to find a therapist and stick to it as a regular part of my future. Oftentimes, counsellors were drained from the lack of social support or therapy for themselves.

Social work programs and/or organizations need to provide training on advertising, marketing and outreach skills because counsellors were often uninformed on how to recruit new clients to meet funder requirements. Equipping counsellors with these skills would make their work easier, more efficient and reduce the stress associated with meeting monthly targets. Until systemic change comes to funding models, counsellors must master the art of engaging with their community and recruiting clients in innovative ways that will not result in burnout.

I believe there should also be a limited term for leadership positions in this sector. The reality is that some individuals have led organizations for 20 + years, supervised by an uninformed Board, and the maintenance of their power and position often supersedes the well-being of the organization.

I have learned its okay to take a break. I’ve also learned its okay to leave this sector for a while. Its also okay to go back to it. That is where I find myself now. I chose to step away from client-facing work and found an organization with values that align with my desire to help others. I transferred my skills to work in a business administration role but I know that I have developed resilience and am free to re-ignite my counselling career any time I want. My hope is that I would have the experience, clarity and "thicker skin" to jump back in knowing my boundaries and be better suited to avoid burnout again.
Chloe Grande's picture
About the author

Mariam is a social service professional, currently working in healthcare administration. In her spare time, she enjoys walking trails, volunteering for refugee supporting organizations, and is an occasional freelance writer of short stories.