In 2006 I wrote an article titled, “The Journey” for the “Relational Child and Youth Care Practice Journal.” I shared my lived experiences from the perspective of a Residential Child and Youth Care Worker/Practitioner [CYCW/CYC-P] with almost fifteen years of experience, a Correctional Worker diploma and Bachelor of Arts degree. No Child and Youth Care program existed at the Nova Scotia Community College when I entered the Correctional Workers program nor was I aware of group homes or the CYC field. When introduced to the CYC profession, during a practicum, the role provided me with the opportunity to help teens which is why I had entered the Correctional Workers Program. The team, home like atmosphere and power was welcoming. The supervisor at the time saw potential in me and I was hired as a casual.
I was not aware of the costs of caring associated with my career choice; vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout, as they had yet to be fully recognized or taught to social service employees.
Vicarious trauma effects the fundamental beliefs of a care provider. The individual's worldview/perspectives are altered due to the repeated exposer to traumatic stories, pain, fear, and the terror of trauma survivors in their care. Compassion fatigue, although similar, occurs when care providers do not implement strategies to refuel and reboot leaving them physically and emotionally depleted and burnout is a gradual loss of physical, emotional and psychological resources to deal with stress.
Until I attended a Provincial CYC Conference where Mike Holton presented a workshop addressing the impacts of caring I believed I was a failure and something was mentally wrong with me. I had already experienced the three costs of caring noted, had sought Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, due to depression and anxiety, and was rebuilding my confidence after joining a new team and program. The knowledge was empowering although implementing proactive strategies to prevent further physical, emotional and psychological impacts continued to be a challenge for me as the culture and profession of CYC progressed.
As the CYC field developed, relationship based approaches rather than behavior modification techniques became the focus. I resisted the changing culture of the field as I found comfort in the structure behavior modification approaches provided me. Perhaps I was having difficulty allowing myself to develop relationships with the youth because I could not balance the therapeutic connection. I struggled to find equilibrium between supporting others and looking after self. I decided to take my Masters in Child and Youth Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University.
My goal, to find out why I could not perform my duties as a CYCW/CYC-P without experiencing the negative consequences of costs of caring.
I completed my final thesis presentation January 2015, "Residential Child & Youth Care Workers' Perspectives of Job Stress and Knowledge of Interventions;" my secondary advisor asked me three times consecutively, “Why did you choose this topic?” I stuck to the claim “I wanted answers?” I later concluded that while I did want answers I was also seeking conclusions which would allow me the ability to externalize the problem, a bias I did not note or recognize in my thesis work.
What did I learn from the research examining the extensive effects of occupational burnout?
Personal, cultural and organizational variables have been found to influence the experiences of job stress, as well as, potential preventative and intervention approaches. It has been argued that holistic preventative approaches might assist early recognition and action as ones’ job, organization and personal characteristics impact how one experiences stress (Decker, Bailey, & Westergaard, 2002; Maslach, 1979). Prolonged exposure to stressful job environments erodes the psychological defenses that are used for coping and adapting (Raider, 1989). Individuals may begin to experience burnout consisting of: emotional exhaustion, a lack of satisfaction with work and/or cynical perspectives regarding clientele, if coping strategies are not implemented and practiced (Seti, 2007; Zellmer, 2008).
Organizations can assist individuals in avoiding burnout symptoms by providing employees with balanced workloads, feelings of control in decision making, appropriate reward for work, fairness among employee management relations, similar values and a sense of community. Reflecting on my current organizational structure the organization was providing prevention and management strategies to assist me in avoiding burnout due to job stress. Unfortunately, as I stated before I had already experienced vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout I needed to recognize and accept the impact of the lingering effects. What did this mean?
The knowledge I attained in my studies indicated that my own psychological defenses, although faulty, were no longer effective in assisting me cope and adapt with the stress I was experiencing. Job stress leading to burnout has been proven to affect the psychological, emotional, and physical well-being of human service employees, organizations’ economic status, and those in care. Physical illness and mental health issues can be costs to individuals who provide care to others, with resulting increases to organizational overhead, and reductions of best-practices.
I had my first panic attack hours after a team meeting. A fellow team member shared information on a few of our former residents. The atmosphere had been relaxed no major issues needed to be addressed and I did not have my emotional shield up. The youth were involved in an underage sex trade ring, a trigger for me. I made it through the meeting and home. I was trying to ignore acknowledging the feelings this information was having on me. I cleaned the house until my partner arrived home. I briefly shared the story my rhythm of speech indicating I was struggling I did not find the release I needed. I suggested I call a friend and fellow CYCW and I was encouraged to do so. When I called, and requested support, the response was immediate we agreed to meet each other.
As I began to walk I was acutely aware of my internal organs were shaking, by the time we met my teeth were chattering, despite my attempts to clench my jaw and maintain control. As we hugged I started to cry I was unable to avoid the emotions surfacing, intense guilt, failure, lack of control, and a lack of purpose. I could not fathom, why we do what we do? I was unable to stop shaking, crying or talking as we walked the neighborhood streets. My friend kept pace, reminding me to breathe, listened, provided safety, understanding and positive words. I felt defeated and lost and later acutely aware my emotional intelligence needed further development. I once again entered therapy to discuss years of repressed emotion. I often wondered, had I received CYC education or entered a professional culture that supported coping strategies and/or interventions, would I have avoided the consequences of the cost of caring?
I do not want to in any way indicate burnout is caused by individual characteristics. I believe the experience of burnout needs to be examined holistically. In my academic studies, I had looked at the organizational structures that may have impacted my experiences with the costs of caring, but I also needed to look within myself.
Personality characteristics do play a role in how one copes with stress and as I reflected, it was evident I had exhibited neuroticism characterized by depression, anxiety or hypochondria, as well as, low self-esteem. These individual variables are linked to all three burnout dimensions (Barford & Whelton, 2010). I lacked the ability to express, identify, understand and adapt to the feelings I was experiencing indicating low levels of emotional intelligence. I placed unique pressures on myself and others due to a naïve view of job expectations and client outcomes. These perspectives impacted my self-efficacy as the course of actions required to attain a given goal were often unrealistic and a result therefore unmet. Finally, I did not seek the support I needed not only did I view this as a sign of weakness I was unaware of the risks caring for others can present until the damage was done.
My journey also revealed individual strengths; my desire to invest and be genuine in my professional and personal well-being, my willingness to learn and adapt, my passion to role model and share knowledge with others, an ability to be compassionate with self and to learn from my mistakes. I have a support system in place and I ask for help when I need it.
I no longer wish to blame but rather am committed to educate and support others. Moreover, I have learned that human service workers appear to experience burnout differently than other service sector employees. The empathetic approach needed for relational practice requires is exceedingly demanding psychologically and emotionally (Barford and Whelton, 2010). I am unaware of just how many youth I have had a relationship with during my career but suspect close to two hundred most of which I never have had contact with once they left care. Unfortunately, it seems as practitioners we only hear about the youth who remain in the system – and this ‘contact’ is typically expressed negatively.
Our Shit Pile
I found new meaning to my lived experience, academic studies and personal reflective practice at a CYC conference with Thom Garfat and Andy Leggit. During the conference, a point was made that our culture /society’s greatest addiction is talking about our problems. As a CYC I see this in the interaction between youth as they share the badges of honor that define dominance, often in the bad choices department. These labels or disparaging stories make up what I refer to as one’s ‘shit pile.’
Connecting this observation with my own experience, choices and academic study then, leads me to ask: “Where is the positive psychology movement in our daily lives? And how might the positive strength lens impact burn out? During our work, meetings, conference work ... what do we talk about? Do we engage in gossip? How do we define ourselves to others? Are we alert to opportunities to share our joy, hope and positive encouragement?
Understanding theory in context, as a CYC instructor, provided me the opportunity to expand my awareness and therefore my growth. Inserting self and practice into the academic examination of burn out has enabled me to position myself actively as an agent rather than a victim. In previous articles, I noted that attitude “is a choice and no one can change it for you, but one’s environment can foster that change.” My practice goal therefore is choose to be a positive force in all areas of life - for myself and for all those who I have the privilege of being in relationship(s) with. As care providers, we need to look after self to effectively look after others; if we espouse the concept of self-worth in practice, then clearly it is not selfish to value our own selves – to do so it is necessary to be well in our own daily lives.
With this article, my goal is to help CYC practitioners to not only acknowledge the need of self-care and self-awareness but also to engage and empower practitioners – encouraging us as active agents able to identify when and to what degree we may need assistance. We all have a ‘shit pile,’ what are you doing with yours? Has it become unmanageable and out of control or are you like a gardener – utilizing shit to sow seeds of growth with awareness and positivity.
We need to deal with our own shit piles and nurture our own goals of well being to aid children, youth, families and communities in establishing their gardens.
“Imperfect Perspectives" will consist of written and video format. The writing and videos will be imperfect as I am the composer and director and I am perfectly imperfect! Be genuine, have the hard conversations and be compassionate to self and other. Be empowered!