by Ricki Steed
This week I have woken several times in the night, heart racing, mouth dry, sweat on my forehead.
When my alarm clock goes off in the morning, I don’t feel like I’ve been to sleep. Instead I’ve dreamt of all the different experiences I have encountered on placement such as meeting mothers and children in the women’s refuge after they have fled domestic abuse, or pre-birth planning meetings where it is announced that the local authority plans to take action to remove a child at birth. I dream of grandmother’s grieving after their grandchild has been adopted, or Dads discussing their heroin addictions and how they use drugs to forget their own abusive childhood.
I was coming in to placement feeling tired and demotivated.
I felt anxious that these feelings were inside of me because unconsciously I was making the decision that I wouldn’t be able to work in child protection. I brought up these feelings with my practice educator Andrea* during my supervision session. I explained that I wasn’t sleeping well and was finding it hard to ‘switch off’ when away from placement if at all. She was really supportive and encouraged me to use part of my supervision to discuss the feelings I was having. Andrea explained that some of the emotions I was experiencing were due to ‘Vicarious Trauma’.
Vicarious Trauma or ‘Compassion Fatigue’ is the personal damage and stress that is caused by helping or wanting to help a person involved in a traumatic situation. Research has indicated that there are long term effects for those working in front line services who ‘re-live’ the experiences of those of whom they work with. The anxiety and stress levels of professionals can be affected by what they see, and there are both physical and emotional affects such as trouble sleeping, low moods, headaches and anxiety.
It was hard to put into words what I felt during my supervision.
I explained to Andrea that I had been so focused on producing and experiencing good feelings and emotions whilst on placement, I had not considered my resilience and how I would manage the negative and traumatic experiences.
David Niven expresses the importance of stress and anxiety being reduced for social workers, and an Important part of this is having interventions in place to protect yourself and your own emotional wellbeing to ensure that you are safe and well, and can be at your best to support those in your care.
Andrea and I discussed the cases that had been having a significant effect on me. We spoke about the interventions that had been put in place to support the children and families and also about the importance of recognising the limitations of your role. Andrea also suggested talking to the social workers of whom the cases I worked on were allocated to. I went and spoke to Amy* who I had shadowed on a particularly complex case where a baby was removed.
She empathised with the emotions and feelings I had and stated “The feelings that you are having never go away, you just learn to manage them better”. She also stated that being aware of the emotions and feelings is an essential part of the role, because if I couldn’t empathise and understand the feelings of those of who I worked with, I would be in the wrong career.
There has been a lot of research undertaken on the link between vicarious trauma and the dreaded ‘burn-out’. The NSPCC has done extensive research and recommends regular supervision and peer support mechanisms.
When I spoke to social workers in my placement, they expressed that there was barely enough time to discuss their caseload in supervision, let alone their feelings and emotions in respect of their role.
There is a negative morale in the office presently, and it seems that people who have kept their heads down are reaching breaking point and do not have anyone to discuss the influences that their case load is having upon them.
I question presently whether there will ever be enough time for me to ‘heal’ following each negative experience I encounter, as the nature of frontline work is fast, hard and heavy, but I hope that the recognition of any good I achieve in relation to children and families along the way will make it all worthwhile.