Secondary traumatic stress and burnout, part 2

In the most recent post, I shared some resources I use when teaching students about secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS results when social workers, teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers and others in helping professions begin to experience symptoms of trauma because of the stories they hear from their clients/patients/students. Helping professionals may also experience STS because of trauma they might directly witness in the workplace, as well as from seeing their clients/patients/students in the aftermath of trauma.

Any professional who works with people exposed to trauma is at risk of experiencing STS, but there are factors that increase the risk, including being female, being a young professional, and having had a prior exposure to trauma. It is these factors that increase risk that impress upon me the need to make sure students understand it; I know it is a real likelihood they could experience it, depending on the specific field of practice they go into. In addition to the resources I shared in the previous post, this is a really useful booklet that looks to have been created for educators’ professional development: The information on risk factors that I shared above is included in here, as well as more information on signs/symptoms of STS and some strategies for self-care. The thing I especially appreciate here is that the strategies aren’t all left up to the individual; there is an understanding that there has to be some organizational level work to facilitate and support self-care and there have to be some changes in the organizational environment.

Photo by Cullan Smith on Unsplash

Burnout is different; any professional can experience burnout. I have seen friends who were accountants, engineers, teachers, ministers, and–yes–social workers who “burned out” of their work. Burnout is classified by ICD (International Classification of Diseases) as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition. As shared on the World Health Organization website, and pulling from the ICD, burnout is characterized by exhaustion, feeling cynical about your work, having mental distance/disengagement from your work, and having reduced efficacy in your work. Here’s the link to the WHO website on the topic:

I know burnout in any field isn’t going to feel good; no one wants to wake up and feel cynical about their work or ineffective while doing it. But I think burnout is more critical in the helping or people-facing professions because of the impact it has on others. Social workers who are burned out are going to stop writing their case notes, cut corners on home visits, leave their jobs sooner (which hurts clients) and more. I have seen all of these happen in places I have worked. Impacts of burnout on clients/service recipients could be even more detrimental in other settings where health and mental health are concerned.

A good supervisor is invaluable when it comes to preventing burnout. Having someone who knows how to help their colleague set boundaries, who encourages self-care, and who is supportive and available for consultation goes a long way. Reflective supervision is important as well; having space in supervision to process your responses to the work you are doing is surely a prevention for burnout.

If you don’t have a supervisor or overall work environment that encourages self-care and boundary setting, the social worker (or other professional) has to prioritize it for themselves. This was always hard for me (still is hard, to be honest) and I am grateful for colleagues then and now who helped me with this even when supervisors didn’t. As we tell our students, self-care isn’t just bubble baths and time for journaling; self-care is making time to get your teeth cleaned, to pay your bills, to call a friend, to get good rest each day. This concept of “boring self-care” is discussed in several places, but this one is specific to social workers:

Finally, a resource that is new to me is this FRIED podcast: I have only listened to a couple of episodes but I look forward to checking out more of them. I am especially interested in the ones devoted to burnout recovery, especially as a form of resistance to so many workplace cultures that are unhealthy.

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