Over the past few months I have been reading as many articles as I could get my hands on looking at self care in the human services. One thing that keeps coming up in the literature is the issue of work stress leading to staff leaving the sector. Staff who at one stage loved their job and the sector who because of the vicarious trauma and minimal managerial support have burnt out. It is just not good enough for a sector that claims to care about people.
So why do we let this happen??? Some say it is the stigma of burning out that makes individuals fear asking for help. Others say that the organisations fear opening a Pandora’s Box of legal and ethical issues. One thing is for sure, as an issue, workplace stress does not get the time it needs at OH&S committee meetings. It is an area which can save organisations thousands of dollars if dealt with properly. Money saved in lost productivity, new hires and costly legal bills as well as higher insurance costs.
As a sector we need to surpass our fears and make self care the ethical issue it is. We need to have workplace stress as a standing item at team meetings, in supervision sessions and in organisational OH&S committees. We currently lose almost a quarter of our staff every year through turnover, if we continue to ignore this massive elephant in the room this number will only grow. In a sector that is struggling to recruit staff shouldn’t we be concerned about keeping those we already have.
What is one thing you can do to place workplace stress on the OH&S agenda?
Today I was reflecting on my career and the major traumatic events that I have seen. I was speaking to a class of school chaplains looking at trauma and abuse. As I was reflecting it dawned on me how many truly traumatised people I have come across. On average two suicides a year, more sexually abused young people than I care to recall, many drug and alcohol abusers and self harmers to name a few.
When I got home I started to think of the many times I have struggled with the traumas of others. This vicarious trauma has almost taken me out of action on a number of occasions, mostly because of a lack of training and supervision. The biggest issue however, is that I care. When a traumatic event happens I actually give a crap. And this is the problem with our profession. Those who give a crap will always be at the mercy of vicarious trauma if they are not supervised and supported.
Today my class of chaplains looked at what trauma is, how it affects people and how to support people through trauma. What was lacking in the training was how as workers we deal with the vicarious trauma when it affects us. As a sector we need to develop a philosophy of self care that starts in the training rooms and lecture halls and follows us through to the end of our careers.
Why is self care so important???
In a couple of words ‘Vicarious Trauma’. Within the work we do as youth workers we hear astonishing stories of things going wrong in our young peoples lives. We hear the stories of physical abuse at the hands of parent, sexual abuse at the hands of supposedly caring adults, of emotional abuse by families and school kids and we hear of the ongoing traumas that come with the adolescent storm and stress. These traumas affect everyone of our young people differently… and they also affect us. This is vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma affects our self care.
Vicarious trauma affects most people slowly. It is the indifference at one of those stories of abuse. It is when a young person becomes just another client rather than a person in need. It is when you get home and yell at your wife because it is a Thursday. It can creep up on you and tear you to shreds. I worked as a family worker a few years back. My eldest daughter was about two and I was working with a young family who also had a two year old. That little girl and my own daughter had similar features and mannerisms and when her story of sexual abuse came to the fore I started to fold. My Wife (a Psychologist) saw me starting to fold and told me in her gentle and loving manner to get myself in order.
As a smart and well educated youth worker I did what I thought best and spoke to my supervisor about my struggles. My Supervisor was a caring social worker who in her best social work speak told me to not worry about it. I attempted to explain the gravity the situation was having on me to no avail. Her supervision was about as useful as a pair of board shorts in the arctic. I went to one of my mentors and he sympathised with my situation. He asked me one question that has always stuck in my mind. “do you have a self car plan”?
I had no idea what a self care plan looked like. I had never even hear of such a thing. First we looked at what a balanced life should entail. We then looked at how balanced my life was at the time. NOT VERY. We then looked at what activities I liked doing in these categories:
We wrote a list of five things in each category that I would enjoy doing and that would help me to gain some balance. In the Physical category I had things like Hiking, going to the gym and having an awesome meal. In the Mental category I had ideas like reading a good book, doing sudoku and doing some studies. Emotional had spending time with my family, enjoying some time with my mates and seeing an external supervisor. Spiritual had go to church, pray and find my centre. Once that had been done the rest was pretty easy. Whenever I felt the pressure of the job getting to me I would choose an activity to do and i would touch base with my mentor to let him know what I had done.
Self care is pretty simple when you plan for it. What three activities could you do to take your mind off the stress of the world? Who are three people you can check in with on a regular basis to vent? If your boss sucks at supporting you through the stress your not alone. Touch base with us if you need someone. But don’t let another day go by without starting to plan for your care. If you are not on top of it how can you care for anyone else.