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Elizabeth Harman, Western Oregon University

Elizabeth Harman.jpgAdvisors connect with students through stories, experiences, and expressions of emotion while promoting the benefits of self-care.  What is not often recognized is that advisors and student success coaches also have a vital need for self-care.  Although the promotion of self-care is now being discussed at institutions, plans for adaptation are not consistent or well-developed (Thomas & Morris, 2017).  Advisors and student success coaches who consistently use critical thought, empathy, and problem solving skills are, at times, not aware that this can impact their well-being and lead to burnout.  The psychological impact of lacking self-care plans can affect not only the professional, but also the personal lives of advisors; identifying the need for self-care and implementing it into daily life is imperative to getting back on track and maintaining a sense of balance.

To define self-care is challenging; it is a construct that is individualized and influenced by personal factors.  Bradley, Whisenhunt, Adamson, and Kress (2013) describe self-care as any actions or experiences that maintain or enhance the well-being of counselors or, in this case, advisors.  Actively pursuing strategies to maintain well-being are highly personalized and relevant to each advisor and student success coach.  Bradley et al. (2013) also identify that counselor (or advisor) wellness is imperative to being supportive and helpful; the absence of this wellness can lead to unintentionally psychologically harming students.  While counseling training programs often stress the importance of self-care to students, few programs address the issue in practice.  As a result, practitioners often do not fully develop the ability to detect their own need for self-care (Newsome, Christopher, Dahlen, & Christopher, 2006).  The CAS Standards for Academic Advising Programs (CAS, 2013) identify its mission as assisting students as they define, plan, and achieve their educational goals.  Failing to engage in self-care behaviors as advisors can compromise the process of assisting and supporting students in the pursuit of their academics (Farr & Cunningham, 2017).

Who takes care of the advisor?  Burnout, a term introduced by Freudenberger in 1980, refers to a slow, corrosive process that ends with the professional staff member being unable to provide empathy and support (Lancaster, 2015).  Stebnicki (2007) defines empathy fatigue, another phenomena for counselors and other care-providing professionals, as experiencing occupational exhaustion when students share experiences, mental health diagnoses, loss, grief, and other emotions.  Empathy fatigue can lead to feelings of reduced professional efficacy, making it more challenging for advisors to manage tasks and assignments that once seemed simple.  Advisors frequently have students who share their lives during the advising relationship, and when this is a constant occurrence, it can lead to feelings of fatigue and exhaustion as empathy stores are depleted.  While there are some advisors with smaller caseloads who may not have the experience of burnout and empathy fatigue as often, other colleagues might have caseloads upwards of 1500 to one, with immense amounts of enervation.  Without appropriate self-care, burnout and empathy fatigue can set in quickly, compromising the advisor’s ability to support the next student.

In a field where connection is vital to the success of the appointment, empathy and support on a daily basis can place a strain or stress on the advisor or student success coach over a period of time (Newsome et al., 2006).  When burnout approaches, one response a provider may have is to anesthetize their feelings in an attempt to continue daily routines in a cut-off way.  The danger of such a response is that there are often maladaptive ways of anesthetizing these emotions.  Brené Brown (2012), one of the leading researchers in shame and vulnerability, commented that the current adult cohort in the United States is the most medicated, addicted, obese, and in debt cohort in history.  Especially in a profession that does not explicitly require or encourage self-care, learning how to respond to difficult or stressful situations is vital to long term management and efficacy on the job.

Developing appropriate self-care strategies is like building a tool kit; each approach can impact advisor well-being in a different way.  To address experiences such as burnout and empathy fatigue, advisors and success coaches should develop methods that promote resilience.  Essayist Briana Weist (2017) discusses self-care as actions or activities that are built into everyday life.  Looking ahead to stressful or busy points of the year and planning around them may reduce the impact on advisors and success coaches (Thomas & Morris, 2017).  Stebnicki (2007) highlights that most strategies involve components of individual self-awareness of burnout or empathy fatigue, wellness and lifestyle modifications, and connections, both personally and professionally.  While it may feel natural to provide assistance and empathy for students, advisors often do not have a space to express vulnerability, debrief difficult appointments, or share emotional stories (Brown, 2012).  Creating a supportive space for front-line advisors to express difficult thoughts, emotions, and experiences fosters connection and promotes productive self-care. This can be built through regular time during staff meetings to discuss difficult appointments or by encouraging advisors to debrief tough situations with another on an individual level.  By doing so, advisors are aware of the impact these stories may have and are connecting with peers and colleagues for support in an attempt to combat the empathy fatigue or burnout (Stebnicki, 2007).

Advisors who are looking for a way to cope with empathy fatigue or burnout in a more individual setting may find value in the therapeutic use of creativity.  In various mediums, this creativity can be used to express grim thoughts or produce an alternative form of communication or exploration of emotions (Bradley et al., 2013).  The process of creation can be cathartic or may even energize advisors while reducing the amount of emotional stress that has been experienced.  Expressive arts may include, but are not limited to, various creative arts, cooking, movement, writing, photography, and music.  Developing a consistent routine of expressive self-care can act as maintenance and prevention, if done at smaller intervals.  When more wellness rejuvenation is needed, these actions can be done for an extended period of time to address the increased stress or demands of the term (Thomas & Morris, 2017).  Through creative expression, advisors become self-aware and are able to identify true emotions or frustrations.  By engaging in individual forms of self-care consistently, advisors may find ways to prevent burnout and express thoughts and feelings in a more private setting.

Academic advisors serve a vital and integral role in student success.  As advisors address appropriate self-care strategies for students in order to be successful, it is important that these same advisors engage in activities or actions that can combat burnout and empathy fatigue.  Learning how to identify appropriate self-care strategies will provide support to advisors and model good self-care habits to students as well as colleagues.  Intentionally creating self-care plans, either with peers or individually, can lead to professional and personal growth and address burnout and empathy fatigue before they occur.

Elizabeth Harman
Academic Success Advisor
Western Oregon University
[email protected]


Bradley, N., Whisenhunt, J., Adamson, N., & Kress, V. E. (2013). Creative approaches for promoting counselor self-care. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 8, 456-469.

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

CAS. (2013). Academic Advising Programs: Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education.  Retrieved from http://standards.cas.edu/getpdf.cfm?PDF=E864D2C4-D655-8F74-2E647CDECD29B7D0

Farr, T. & Cunningham, L. (2017). NACADA academic advising core competencies guide. Manhattan, KS: NACADA, The Global Community for Academic Advising.

Lancaster, D. L. (2015). Burnout, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma: A brief for administrators, physicians, and human service workers. [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Newsome, S., Christopher, J. C., Dahlen, P., & Christopher, S. (2006). Teaching counselors self-care through mindfulness practices. Teachers College Record, 108, 1881-1900.

Stebnicki, M. A. (2007). Empathy fatigue: Healing the mind, body and spirit of professional counselors. American Journal of Psychiatric Rehabilitation, 10(4), 317-338.

Thomas, D. A., & Morris, M. H. (2017). Creative counselor self-care. American Counseling Association. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/creative-counselor-self-care.pdf?sfvrsn=ccc24a2c_4

Wiest, B. (2017, November 16). This is what ‘self-care’ really means, because it’s not all salt baths and chocolate cake [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://thoughtcatalog.com/brianna-wiest/2017/11/this-is-what-self-care-really-means-because-its-not-all-salt-baths-and-chocolate-cake/


Cite this article using APA style as: Harman, E. (2018, September). Recharging our emotional batteries: The importance of self-care for front line advisors. Academic Advising Today, 41(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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