Hidden Occupational Hazards for Social Service Providers

Hidden Occupational Hazards for Social Service Providers

Dana C. Branson (Southeast Missouri State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7348-8.ch008
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Burnout, secondary traumatic stress (STS), and vicarious trauma (VT) are occupational hazards for those who work in social service settings, specifically social workers, therapists, counselors, correctional rehabilitative staff, and case managers who encounter the physical, emotional, and/or sexual trauma of others. Research surrounding these phenomena continues to expand, shedding light on the development, symptomology, potential risk and protective factors, and effective means of prevention. This chapter addresses the common pathways of burnout, STS, and VT development. The differences between the terms and the unique hazards to those who work with traumatized individuals will be discussed. Additionally, the chapter will discuss posttraumatic growth techniques, which are purposeful activities and cognitive mindsets that counteract the potential hazards of working with traumatized clients. Finally, the chapter will examine the implications for academic programs, supervisors, and agencies to better support providers.
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Enough was enough! I needed to speak with someone, and I knew that my colleague Brenda would listen and keep my concerns confidential. I went into her office and shut the door. “Hey Brenda… do you ever not want to have sex with your partner because of the stuff clients tell you?” Brenda did not hesitate for a second, “Oh sure—it’s called vicarious trauma. Happens all the time to therapists. It’s a huge issue in our profession, but no one ever talks about it.” That was the first time I had ever heard the term vicarious trauma, and I had been a practicing social worker for over a decade.

Social service providers are members of the community that have academically prepared and/or trained to help others struggling in some manner. The title encompasses a wide field of occupations; but, for the purposes of this chapter, social service providers represent social workers, counselors, criminologists, case workers, police officers, juvenile officers, probation and parole officers, and other professionals who encounter trauma, crisis, disasters, and other high stress-provoking situations of their clientele on a regular basis. Students who are pursuing a college/training program in the social services often have similar experiences. When students announce their future involves a career in helping others, well-intentioned loved ones will say things like, “I’m sure it is rewarding work, but the hours are long, the people you have to work with are so troubled, and the pay is low…why would you want to do ________ for a living?” Other common statements might involve the misperception that people who go into social services want to “save the world” or “fix people.” What most students want is the knowledge and skills to help a client change their lives for the better and to be part of making a client’s journey through life more meaningful and less difficult. Most students who are attracted to social services feel they are “called” to the profession and have worldviews and passions that reinforce this calling (Callister & Plante, 2017).

When looking introspectively, students often find they have been prepping for a career in social services most of their lives through volunteering, viewing social problems through a social justice lens, being naturally non-judgmental, seeing antecedents to the development of maladaptive behaviors in others, and understanding elements of human behavior that others tend to miss (Callister & Plante, 2017; Lewis & King, 2019). Additionally, those attracted to social services as a career have other common characteristics, such as kindness, altruism, self-sacrificing for the good of others, and a positive worldview (Branson et al., 2019). These attributes, along with academic and skills-based training, create helping professionals that can partner with clients to address a multitude of difficult situations in an effective and proactive manner (Hepworth et al., 2017). However, hazards to the helping profession also need to be discussed so social service providers can be protected through education, certain safeguards, and intentional behaviors.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Secondary Traumatic Stress: Denotes those who struggle with being mentally exhausted by their exposure to other people’s difficulties and feeling that they are unable to make a meaningful difference. The term is interchangeable with compassion fatigue; however, secondary traumatic stress is usually reserved for those who are trained to work with crisis and traumatic situations as part of their overall job.

Mental Health Workers: Academically and/or skills-based personnel who work to assist clients in changing their behaviors, cognitions, emotions, and social interactions to enhance their daily lives.

Empathy: A trained skill in social service providers that involves the provider consciously taking the perspective of the client from their worldview and value system, suspending judgement for the client’s behaviors, recognizing emotions within the client, and communicating this to the client in a manner that the client feels heard and validated.

Mindfulness: A collection of activities that purposefully focuses a person on what is going on in the present moment, physically, emotionally, cognitively, and/or spiritually. These activities promote relaxation and use of cognitive strategies to intentionally decrease negative stimuli and return the system to a state of equilibrium.

Burnout: A state that occurs when one is emotionally exhausted due to the demands of work, creating a perception of apathy for one’s work, depersonalization, and an overall sense of not making a difference.

Social Service Provider: Someone who works with struggling people through an organized agency. Social service providers deliver a wide range of services through multiple types of agencies with the goal of bettering the lives of individuals, groups, and communities.

Posttraumatic Growth: Purposeful activities and cognitive mindsets that counteract the potential hazards of working with traumatized clients by finding meaning in the difficulties experienced by self and others.

Cognitive Restructuring: The process of consciously identifying negative, untrue, or unhelpful thoughts that ruminate in one’s mind and strategically changing the cognitive script.

Correctional Therapeutic Staff: Those who work with offenders at any level (incarcerated, probation, parole, diversion programs, or rehabilitation) with the goal of creating needed social, behavioral, cognitive, and/or emotional changes so offenders will leave correctional services.

Social Worker: Someone who has been classically and academically trained by a program that has been accredited by the Council on Social Work Education and has demonstrated the skills needed to work with others in an effective manner that is conducive to the Code of Ethics and adheres to the six core values established by the National Association of Social Workers.

Compassion Fatigue: Denotes those who struggle with being mentally exhausted by their exposure to other people’s difficulties. The term is interchangeable with secondary traumatic stress; however, compassion fatigue is usually reserved for laypersons, volunteers, and humanitarians who are not trained specifically for work in crisis situations.

Self-Care: Discretionary time that is set aside to physically, emotionally, and spiritually rest, relax, and be refreshed.

Vicarious Trauma: A term developed through the theoretical lens of constructivist self-development theory and reserved specifically for providers struggling with disclosed material from traumatized clients while in an established empathic relationship. This is an issue that develops over an extended period due to the accumulation of client disclosures.

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