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Study puts a spotlight on trauma of community service workers

The University of South Australia (UniSA) has just released a study, which has found important measures that need to be put in place to help community service workers with trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout.

Professionals in the caring field share the grief, pain and fears of their clients and enjoying the rewarding work, however, the work does take a mental toll. [Source: Shutterstock]
Professionals in the caring field share the grief, pain and fears of their clients and enjoying the rewarding work, however, the work does take a mental toll. [Source: Shutterstock]

UniSA’s The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise along with Centacare Catholic Family Services, were able to identify ways to minimise the effect of personal trauma on social workers and counsellors, who dedicate their lives to helping people through trauma.

Professionals in the caring field share the grief, pain and fears of their clients and enjoying the rewarding work, however, the work does take a mental toll.

Dr Jonathon Louth, UniSA Lead Research on the project, Understanding Vicarious Trauma, says this report exposes factors which will benefit workers who regularly work with people who need assistance for traumatic situations.

“Frontline workers are experiencing high levels of trauma that will impact their everyday lives well into the future,” Dr Louth says.

“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. This situation cannot and should not be ignored.”

The UniSA team collaborated with Centacare staff to find seven key signs community service institutions can use to recognise compassion-based stress and how to respond.

Dr Louth says, “Ensuring ‘space between’ is a really important consideration. Whether that’s time between clients, time for lunch, reflection or just chatting with colleagues.

“The boundaries between work and home also need to be protected, and workers need to be supported to better distinguish between their personal and professional lives.”

The report also highlights the importance of the internal culture in the workplace, including celebrating wins to enhance and develop resilience in staff, and good peer relationships is vital to wellbeing.

However, the report did outline that care needs to be taken to make sure traumatic experiences are not “offloaded” onto other staff.

Professionals experiencing compassion-based stress needs to have official recognition of the different issues they are facing, from both managerial frameworks, as well as funding arrangements to be in place to make sure vicarious trauma is not neglected.

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

The report also looked into Centacare’s setting and how they minimise vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, finding the company had a successful framework in place for their staff. 

Centacare Deputy Director, Pauline Connelly, believes awareness of vicarious trauma is key to their work.

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

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