by Alexandra Dolan, MSS, LSW
More than a decade into my social work career, my work has taken an interesting shift. I no longer work directly with people seeking help. My clients are now the helpers. For the last two years, a co-worker and I have been offering trainings to raise awareness of common responses to our social work practice—vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burn-out—and how to enhance self care skills to maintain competent practice and love for the work.
My colleague and I started researching the topic as a way of processing our own responses to the often difficult work of child advocacy. Our clients’ experiences of abuse and neglect, as well as the many times we witnessed the system further traumatize children, created a lot of negative emotions, habits, and reactions. Putting our thoughts and experiences into an interactive training helped us understand our own responses to others’ trauma and to identify realistic but meaningful self care strategies to support our work. We’ve been fortunate enough to draw from the work of SaraKay Smullens, John Barnett and Jeffrey Norcross, Francois Mathieu, Olga Phoenix, and Laura van Dernoot Lipsky (to name a few) to enhance our reflections on trauma and vicarious trauma, burn-out and self care.
Two years and more than 500 training participants later, some clear trends have emerged. Most of us who practice social work do so from a heartfelt and genuine desire to help others, create change, and give back. Social workers have high exposure to trauma, through clients’ traumatic experiences, unsafe living situations, and exposure to violence. It was a common experience among social workers who attended our trainings to have had a client pass away while working with them, to have had a client experience violence unrelated to the reasons they were seeking help, and to feel unsafe themselves during the course of their work. In addition to the traumatic nature of their work, our training participants also reported feeling the pressures and demands of the larger system. In general, most of us understand the need to take care of ourselves to do our jobs effectively and with passion, but find it difficult, if not impossible, to create time in our work schedules and personal lives to integrate self care strategies.
The consequences are real and can be overwhelming: our training participants repeatedly report stress and vicarious trauma causing physical illness, disturbed sleep, anxiety, irritability, hyper vigilance, strained relationships, procrastination, diminished competence, and tension among co-workers. Our profession needs creative and sustainable solutions to address burn-out and vicarious trauma in order to support social workers, protect clients, and attract and maintain new recruits to the field.
There is hope and inspiration in gathering social workers together to talk about our work, the challenges, and most importantly, reconnecting to what brought us to this work in the first place and what sustains us. Continued conversations, trainings, research, and organizational change are necessary to support social workers in the important and life-changing work that we do.
Alexandra Dolan, MSS, LSW, is a graduate of Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She currently works at the Support Center for Child Advocates in Philadelphia, PA, as the Outcomes in Behavioral Health Training Coordinator. Alexandra lives in Philadelphia with her husband and their three rowdy sons.