Small wins and admiration for clients keep Centacare workers going when trauma and fatigue from the frontlines seeps into their everyday lives.

A new study reveals the strength and resilience of Centacare’s dedicated workforce, but warns the constant demand for their empathy and compassion can take a heavy toll.

The research, released today by Centacare Catholic Family Services and UniSA’s The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise (TAASE), identifies key strategies to help community service workers to minimise the potential impact of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout.

“Centacare’s response to caring for staff needs to be as important as caring for the client,’’ says Deputy Director Pauline Connelly. “If that diminishes, the human element of our work does as well.’’

The report  Understanding Vicarious Trauma recognises the strength workers take from client stories, and how small wins inspire hope, resilience, self-worth and a sense of purpose.

Centacare’s internal culture, strong peer relationships, and the need for time and space to help workers counter the emotional demands of caring for our most vulnerable, are among other core themes.

“Ensuring `space between’ is a really important consideration, whether that’s time between clients, time for lunch, reflection or just chatting with colleagues,’’ says Dr Jonathon Louth, lead researcher.

“There is also is strong correlation between compassion fatigue and work satisfaction, which suggests appropriate interventions and support encourage healthier, more efficient workplaces.’’

The research shows vicarious trauma is not endemic at Centacare but clearly illustrates the cumulative effects of working in the sector.

For example, absorbing trauma “through osmosis’’ and sensory experiences, through to regular issues with sleeping, or how a television advertisement “will set you off’’ leaving a worker in tears.

“They represent a generation of veterans who are not returning from war, but from working within vulnerable communities and families within our cities, suburbs and regions,’’ says Dr Louth. “This situation cannot and should not be ignored.’’

The study commends Centacare as a leader in working to ensure the wellbeing of staff but notes vicarious traumatisation is a `ticking timebomb’ and requires immediate and ongoing attention across the wider community services sector.

Key protective factors

The report, Understanding Vicarious Trauma, identifies seven key protective factors for workers in traumatic environments. They are:

Work satisfaction: There is a very strong correlation between compassion fatigue and work satisfaction. The drivers that inspire work satisfaction can be a protective factor in minimising compassion fatigue when appropriate supports are in place. Unchecked, these very drivers can be a root cause of compassion fatigue as workers’ empathetic reserves are at risk of depletion. The takeaway from this is that appropriate interventions and supports will encourage healthier workplaces.

Informal support networks: Peer relationships are vital and are a keystone within this study. However, care must be taken to ensure that traumatic experiences are simply not offloaded onto other staff.

The ‘space between’ matters: Time between clients, time for lunch, reflection or chatting with colleagues all matter. The cult of busy, whether self or sector-imposed diminishes the effectiveness and likelihood of meaningful support practices. Key considerations around support needs to be around the availability of clinical supervision, an authentic organisational voice around self-care, and a policy approach to managing informal support, without necessarily ‘formalising’ it in the process

Boundary setting: The boundaries between work and home need to be protected. Workers need to be able to and be supported to better distinguish between their personal and professional lives. Identifying boundaries lessens the burden of carrying traumatic material outside of the workplace.

Small wins and the client voice: It is imperative that a culture of celebrating wins and the elevation of clients’ voices feature prominently in everyday workday practices. Strength-based narratives can contribute to enhancing and developing resilience in staff and directly contribute to a vicarious resilience informed approach.

Organisational relationships: While organisations require managerial relations, the enabling of a structure that encourages ‘power with’ as opposed to ‘power over’ allows for an emancipatory approach to dealing with vicarious trauma. Freedom to discuss and work through solutions lessens the impact of trauma-based work.

Recognition by funding bodies: In order to protect against the economic and health consequences of vicarious traumatisation, funding bodies must factor protective and predictive strategies into funding arrangements.

To download the report, click here:  Understanding Vicarious Trauma