CYC-Online 89 JUNE 2006
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The importance of self-care

Patricia Kostouros and Scott McLean

This article speaks to the need for emerging professionals to consider how crucial self-care is. This article also calls for educators to consider a curriculum that addresses present and future self-care needs of students and those entering the human service field. An argument is made that in this profession, given its layers of challenges, there are many stressors. Therefore, the need to increase happiness and enjoy life, as free from stress as possible, is critical.

In the field of human services, there are many rewards as well as many stressors when helping others. While one can derive great pleasure and self-satisfaction in assisting those at-risk or in need, there is also a point where stress and burnout become factors in professional self-care. This burnout can happen for a myriad of reasons including a heavy caseload, the nature and intensity of a case, low financial compensation, unrealistic expectations from superiors, or a sense of helplessness when a client’s situation does not improve. These are just a few examples that may compromise the effectiveness of a helping professional.

Ultimately, self-care for all helping professionals is crucial so that they can continue to serve their respective clients with maximum effectiveness. Furthermore, the ability of a helping professional to be able to understand him/herself is just as important as the individuals he/she is trying to understand. To succeed in such a situation, there needs to be time that is devoted exclusively to the helping professional in order to assess self-renewal, and reflection, as well as quality time far away from the issues of work.

Post-secondary institutions in career and professional programs have a responsibility to provide an opportunity for learning and integration in the area of self-care. The understanding and reasoning for emphasizing self-care in post-secondary education relates to the stressful education milieu, the role as a professional, and being an appropriate role model. Examples include students learning strategies to overcome stress related to their schooling, the ability for students to implement strategies as a professional to maintain high quality and ethical work, and being an effective role model.

Self-care and the professional
As adult learners already working, or aspiring to work, in the role of helping professionals, having knowledge of self-care is as invaluable as the education and skills required to help others. As a helping professional, understanding that our ability to assist people in their lives only goes as far as we are able to deal effectively with our own lives and will lead to maximum therapeutic benefits for the clients with whom we work.

When working with clients, the focus for helping professionals is ultimately placed on the wellness of the individual being helped. Consequently, personal wellness is often over-looked, and thus the recognition of wellness for the helping professional becomes secondary. While the client is prescribed various techniques and strategies to help overcome the problems he/she faces, often this advice is not transferred to personal self-care for the counsellor (O'Halloran & Linton, 2000). The reasons for the latter situation can be examined from many different angles. Perhaps the idea emerges from the fact that since helping professionals are educated, they are somehow immune to suffering and breakdown like some of their clients. Quite simply, though, it could come down to a lack of self-awareness. Osborn (2004) states, “mental health and substance abuse practitioners today are besieged with numerous demands on their time, talents, and resources” (p. 319). It is safe to assume that the basis of a helping professional’s motivation to work in this field is, first and foremost, to help people. While financial compensation provides a means of subsistence, the helping professional sees something far more intrinsically rewarding in working with people than the mere financial gain. There is no questioning the merit of this motivation but it can lead to lack of objectivity on behalf of the helping professional as he/she becomes immersed in the world of his/her clients. Apart from the frontline work with clients, Osborn (2004) points out that counsellors are also expected to keep up with increasing and changing license and certification standards and collaboratively work with a vast array of other professionals in the human and mental health field. Add to this the limitations placed on helping professionals in the field such as funding cuts, and the necessity to be accountable and responding to evidence-based outcomes, there is indeed a substantial amount of pressure on helping professionals. Having said this, Gabel and Oster (as cited in Osborn, 2004) state, “given the challenges of mental health care, it is understandable and perhaps expected that professional counsellors would be experiencing stress, frustration, job dissatisfaction, apathy, and even burnout” (p. 321).

Specifically, as helping professionals, the need for self-care is of paramount importance because of the inherent stress that is involved in working with people in need and the resulting burnout that can occur. Osborn (2004) reports that job stress for helping professionals is nothing new and that the challenges presented in supporting others will take a toll physically, mentally, and emotionally on helping professionals.

Wharton (1993) described the strain of engaging in ongoing emotional labor (rendering a service to the public that requires the management of one’s feelings), and Skovholt (2001) outlined 20 hazards of practising professional counseling and psychotherapy, including providing constant empathy and one-way caring and experiencing emotional trauma. (p. 321)

Job stress can severely hamper the ability of the helping professional to best serve his/her clients. Such stress can rapidly increase as the helping professional adopts the attitude that perhaps if he/she works harder to help more people resolve their particular situations their stress will decrease. This viewpoint can turn into a vicious cycle where the feelings of intense gratification, when a small change has occurred, are quickly nullified with a feeling of moving to the next issue and realizing that there is never really an end point in sight but rather a continuum of that which they have worked so hard to rectify. Being able to step back and gain a perspective from time to time on what has and has been achieved in one’s work is vital. The more time that is devoted to working on people’s problems, without checking how such problems are affecting the attending professional, can lead to stress, frustration and eventual burnout. Leatz and Stolar (1993) state, “Burn out is physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding and very stressful, combined with high personal expectations for one’s performance” (p.116). Examples of burnout include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of clients, and a lack of feelings of personal accomplishments.

These are but a few factors that relate to happiness and a means to self-care. For each helping professional, how he/she derives his/her path to self-care will be different. Regardless of how self-care is achieved for each individual, the importance lies in the timeliness in which it is initiated. There is no helping professional who will go through a career and not need to step back and invest in quality time and care for him/herself. While some may be more resilient than others, we all reach a breaking point. It is crucial that there is a self-awareness surrounding this breaking point and one must take the necessary steps for prevention in order that we may continue to be effective with clients whilst, at the same time, enjoy our own lives.

Self-care and the college student
Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta established outcomes-based learning in 1997 to provide students with learning opportunities of an articulated curriculum that is integrated into a learning plan. Learning is viewed as developmental, cumulative, and connected to applied concepts. The Child and Youth Care Counsellor Diploma Program and the Bachelor of Applied Child Studies Degree Program at Mount Royal College developed specific learning outcomes based on professional practice, communication, assessment and intervention, critical analysis, and management and leadership.

Professional practice can be defined as the commitment to developing and gaining awareness of values, beliefs, and ethics and integrating these attitudes into professional behaviors. A specific learning outcome related to professional practice is the student to recognize and establish the importance of self-care. Awareness becomes the initial step in the process of effective self-care practice. For example, students will learn about the signs, symptoms, and differences between stress concepts.

Post-secondary institutions providing a foundation of self-care concepts establish the importance of happiness and wellness. The commitment to developing and gaining awareness of self-care relates to a student’s professional and personal attitudes. Applying these concepts into their future role as professionals becomes part of the learning outcome. Students will have opportunities to learn skills and strategies in order to encourage and teach their clients the importance of self-care. Equally as important is the professional who practices what he/she preaches; for instance, the professional role models self-care disclosing personal strategies and or establishing appropriate boundaries such as not working on the weekends.

We believe that as educators we have a responsibility to help students understand the work they are about to begin. While we recognize the challenge to implement, as curriculum, so much other information, the issue of self-care is important because it allows the developing professional a chance to survive and thrive. Therefore, our profession as Child and Youth Care grows stronger and more stable, since our professionals stay in the fields longer, are more effective, and are healthier as helpers.

We think that the curriculum developed should be designed in such a way that the student can relate it to their education as well as in their practice hours. Therefore, curriculum related to self-care would become more complex as student learning and development allows. For example, learning about the need for self-care related to stress management may be enough given the new learning environment. More complex concepts such as burnout or vicarious trauma could be introduced later on when the student it in a practice setting, and more familiar with educational expectations.

We encourage those who are educators in Child and Youth Care to consider this proposal. We plan to submit further thoughts and ideas on this topic and look forward to debate and discussion. We here at Mount Royal College see this curriculum development as an addition to the education of our students as well as an addition to the profession.


Leatz, C. A., & Stolar, M. W. (1993). Career success/personal stress: How to stay healthy in a high-stress environment. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Miller, G. (2001). Finding happiness for ourselves and our clients. Journal of Counseling and Development, 79, 382-385. Retrieved November 5, 2004, from EBSCO.

O'Halloran, T. M., & Linton, J. M. (2000). Stress on the job: Self-care resources for counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 22, 354-365. Retrieved November 5, 2004, from EBSCO.

Osborn, C. J. (2004). Seven salutary suggestions for counselor stamina. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 319-329. Retrieved November 5, 2004, from PROQUEST.

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