Campus News

$2.55 million NIH grant funds study of turnover among substance abuse counselors

Lillian Eby, a professor of psychology and director of the University of Georgia Owens Institute for Behavioral Research, is one of the world’s leading experts on mentoring relationship. (UGA file photo)

The annual turnover rate among substance abuse counselors in the U.S. is close to 20 percent. In four years, more than half of these counselors will leave the profession entirely, possibly compromising the quality of care for those with addiction problems.

A new $2.55 million grant, just awarded to a team of researchers at UGA, will support studies into the causes of this turnover and help propose ways to solve a growing problem.

“Little is actually known about counselor retention,” said Lillian Eby, associate professor of psychology and team leader. “We believe the entire project has potential implications for training, licensing and credentialing of substance abuse counselors.”

Others at UGA involved in the five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is a division of the National Institutes of Health, are: Paul Roman, Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Research on Behavioral Health and Human Services Delivery at the Institute for Behavioral Research; and Charles Lance, professor of psychology and chair of the Applied Psychology Program.

Others involved in the grant associated with Roman at the Institute for Behavioral Research include Lori Ducharme, Aaron Johnson and ­Hannah Kundsen.

Healthcare has higher employee turnover rates than any other industry in America, said Eby. The problem with substance abuse counselors is among the worst in the industry, and while there are assumptions about why this is true, little empirical study has been done to find out why.

“Examining turnover among substance abuse professionals is important for several reasons,” said Eby. “One reason is financial. It is estimated that the turnover cost of losing a single counselor is about $35,000. This estimate is even higher for clinical supervisors, who are also prone to high turnover rates.

“There are also health-related reasons to be concerned about the turnover,” she said. “It can disrupt the ­treatment process and sever established and successful patient-therapist ­relationships.”

The just-funded research program will provide a comprehensive examination of turnover among substance abuse professionals. For such a high burnout occupation, reliable data are crucial. Among the areas the team will study are: how positive interpersonal relationships at work, particularly the mentoring relationship between counselor and clinical supervisor, reduce the chance of turnover; the association between burnout, work attitudes and turnover; and how changes in the clinical supervisory relationship affect burnout, work attitudes and ultimately turnover.

“In the new research, we will incorporate key findings from models of employee turnover, burnout and the well-known ‘investment model,’ of close relationships,” said Eby. “In so doing, we will include the costs and benefits of clinical supervision, job satisfaction, burnout, relationship alternatives, investments in the relationship, organizational commitment, turnover intentions and turnover as key areas of study.”