Working as a window-dresser at Myer in the 1970s gave Cilla Rees a unique look at human nature.
Flanked by mannequins clad in high-end seasonal staples, Cilla would watch and wonder about the passers-by behind the glass.
“I would sit in the window arranging the merchandise and be distracted by people going up and down Rundle Mall,’’ she says.
“I could hear what they were saying and I’d try and work out where they were coming from; what was happening in their lives.’’
Cilla credits these strangers for inadvertently inspiring her to step away from visual merchandising in the early 1980s into the often traumatic frontline of community services.
“I learnt a lot from observing people and the situations that I sometimes witnessed in particular between adults and their children. This curiosity led me to reflect upon my own childhood.”
In the years that followed, Cilla worked in foster care, community development, teaching and ran parent participation groups, before she was drawn to counselling.
Cilla joined Centacare in 2001 and is today a Reflective Practice Counsellor with the Children’s Services Unit.
In her role, Cilla supports staff one-on-one to help them manage the personal toll of working with vulnerable families.
A new report, released this week by Centacare and UniSA’s The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise, shows that trauma does not disappear when workers go home. It leaves a residual presence that can harm, but also inspire, over time.
The research identifies key protective factors for workers in traumatic environments. These include the `space between’. Time between clients, time for lunch, reflection or chatting with colleagues.
“I’m there to listen and to offer encouragement and support, particularly in relation to challenges,’’ Cilla says.
“Some staff may find it hard to switch off when they go home. Others may be struggling with decisions regarding safety issues for children they are working with which conflict with their experiences of the family, and that can be very hard to deal with on a daily basis when they’re home visiting.’’
Resilience is a common theme too, adds Cilla: “When we’re talking and I’m asking questions, often it’s about their resilience: How did you do that? Where did that skill come from?
“Regardless of the depth of prior experiences, it can sometimes be especially difficult confronting some family situations, likely to arise.
“Giving oneself permission to spend some time reflecting on the situation with the Reflective Practitioner can lessen the impact.”
Through group mindfulness sessions and visualization techniques, Cilla helps staff to balance the tension between the emotional risk factors and the rewarding aspects of their work.
Additional supports include clinical supervision, the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and the Worker Security Application which monitors workers’ real-time safety status and whereabouts.
“When I was on the frontline we didn’t have any of the emotional and practical supports we have today,” Cilla says. “I worked with a number of families in quite serious situations.
“One particular time we were locked in a room because the father didn’t want us to leave. That was very scary. Looking back, we didn’t even report it which seems incredible now.’’
Cilla has her own routine for “dissolving work’’ as she heads home each night but adds that this takes practice.
“I never stop learning,’’ she says. “I get satisfaction knowing I’ve added a little bit more on to the work I’ve been doing for all these years.
“I don’t know what the staff I see take away with them, but I’d like to think I’ve been a support.’’