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Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue: The importance of staff wellness

In a seminar at the recent COMPASS Jobs Fair in London, Aman Sekhon-Gill discussed the difficult nature of social work and the personal toll this takes on professionals.

03/01/23

Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue: The importance of staff wellness

Social workers regularly face trauma at work – directly through events in their work and vicariously, through the stories of the families they work with.

Left unacknowledged, it leads to compassion fatigue and emotional withdrawal.

‘When I look back over the years, I think about all those Children and Families professionals who have said, “I can’t deal with this.” And time and again managers say that “that’s the nature of the job,’ Aman Sekhon-Gill, Assistant Director of Quality Assurance for Buckinghamshire Council, told a COMPASS seminar in London.

‘Our work entails opening our hearts and minds to others, our children and families -- that is good practice. It is not okay to tell staff they have to “deal with it because that is minimising the effect that our work can have on us. It is exhausting and can lead to compassion fatigue, which is described as the cost of caring for others.

She said that emotional withdrawal follows, and that means that the quality of social work professional assessment declines. ‘We no longer become curious”. The professional is not able to be compassionate enough. And the one thing the families we work with need from us is authentic compassion.’

In Buckinghamshire, the aim is to recognise the need for empathy and its impact, and to support staff through high-quality supervision and an emphasis on health and wellbeing.

She showed a short film that compared the stress to carrying a glass of water. It is not how heavy the glass is, but how long you have to carry it around for. Stress which builds and builds is like the glass that is never put down; it gets heavier and heavier.

‘So when demand is high and complexity is high, how do we put the glass down?’
Ms Sekhon-Gill said. ‘“Just pause for me for a second,” is a really important statement from managers to their staff. It takes insightful leaders with strong emotional intelligence to have the courage to say that,’ she said. ‘It is a recognition that the work is hard. We should be okay to acknowledge that and [support staff].

She said that the language of performance is crucial too. . So as a manager I will say “why is this important?”. And I will [tell staff] that I will never be able to defend you for a poor assessment, but I will always defend you doing an assessment a little bit late because you needed to work with the family a little longer to ensure the assessment was thorough. What does the performance measure mean to staff? Timely assessments mean a family receives a service in a timely way, meaning they are not left in crisis for longer because we haven’t determined which path to follow.

Buckinghamshire Council provides an Employee Assistance Programme, in which trained professionals offer round the clock confidential support for staff on personal and professional issues.

Additionally, the council offers wellness weeks for childrens services staff, every six weeks, when staff at all levels have access to wellness activities from a timetable that runs across the five days.

A typical week includes sessions on: Mindfulness Meditation; Deskercise; Zumba; Breath work; Baking, knitting and Reiki.

‘We invite people to suggest and bring their own skill set, outside social work. It creates a lovely culture for our staff.

‘The aim is to normalise wellbeing.’

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