Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Retention Strategies

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Vocational rehabilitation counseling can be a very rewarding career. It can also be frustrating, difficult, and emotionally draining. These challenges can lead to burnout and have caused many counselors to leave the field entirely.

Counselor burnout and high turnover decreases the VR system’s ability to support people with disabilities reach their employment and life goals. When staff members leave, their consumers may be assigned a new counselor. This change can be distressing and discouraging for all involved. It often requires consumers to retell their entire story, the new counselor to learn case specifics, and both the counselor and consumer to emotionally invest in trying to build rapport with one another.

Research shows that VR counselors with 5 or more years of experience have more successful employment outcomes for their consumers.

Yet, research shows that VR counselors with 5 or more years of experience have more successful employment outcomes for their consumers. Improving counselor retention could significantly improve the VR system’s ability to support consumers reach their employment and quality of life goals.

3 Strategies Improve VR Counselor Retention

A white paper from San Diego State University Interwork Institute outlines ways VR agencies could improve counselor retention. Here are some tools and practices they suggest:

Use Employee Engagement Surveys

Anonymous annual surveys are an important tool for counselor retention. Asking counselors whether they feel valued and happy can give leadership a pulse on the environment. Agencies can learn the level of staff commitment and motivation — and the likelihood of turnover in time to make necessary changes.

Conduct “Stay Interviews”

When employees leave, they are often invited to take part in an “exit interview” when it is already too late for leadership to address concerns. Stay interviews show that management cares, builds trust, opens communication lines, encourages honest conversations, and can reveal patterns and data about why staff want to leave.

Examine Management Practices

Some management practices contribute to counselors burning out and leaving. Examining these practices and making positive changes could lead to increased staff retention:

  • Increase counselors’ face-to-face work and reduce time spent doing paperwork and data entry.
  • Create an environment of transparent and ongoing communication between management and field staff employees.
  • Inform employees why decisions are made and be open to feedback. Put effort into understanding others’ point of view.
  • Provide staff training, including leadership exercises and opportunities for both personal and professional camaraderie.
  • Put term limits on committee roles.
  • Ask employees what's working and not working for them, and check for alignment with the agency’s mission.
  • Provide a flexible work environment and explore how to increase management trust in staff’s ability to be accountable.
  • Support both managers and field staff to develop the skills needed for their jobs while reducing the “us versus them” mentality.
  • Combat institutional bias by having discussions and providing learning activities to improve customer service.
  • Provide staff with opportunities for both tangible and intrinsic rewards to increase counselors’ emotional satisfaction from serving clients.

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