|Looking After Ourselves and Each Other|
|Robin J. Wilson. Ph.D., ABPP|
McMaster University, Hamilton, ON
Wilson Psychological Services LLC, Sarasota, FL
Why do we do this work?
A long time
ago, most of us who work in sexual violence prevention made a few critical
decisions. We were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed teenagers who had no idea what we
wanted to do when we “grew up.” In high school we talked with our friends and
family about the sorts of things we’d like to study in college or university. I
initially thought I would go to medical school and become a surgeon, but shaky
hands put the boots to that idea. That’s how I found psychology. I suspect many of
you also had academic dilemmas with which to contend, but you ultimately found
yourself in the humanities or studying something that would eventually lead to
work in social services.
Interestingly, I didn’t pick sexual violence
prevention as a career; it sort of chose me. After my third year of full-time
study in psychology at the University of Toronto, I needed a break and went
looking for a job. I managed to secure a position at the university’s
psychiatric teaching hospital, working for a Czech psychiatrist named Kurt
Freund who, it turned out, was the pioneer of the phallometric test (or penile
plethysmograph as it’s known more broadly in the USA). Working for Dr. Freund
was the single greatest influence on my future and after having had the
opportunity to conduct research, study human sexuality, and to rub shoulders
with other great practitioners in Canada, my career path was set. I’ve never
looked back and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a boring day at work.
However, that’s not to say that I haven’t also had some very upsetting days at
We work in a field that brings us in contact with
people who have been harmed in a particularly intimate way, as well as with the
people who have harmed them. We’re in the public safety business. We work with
victims of sexual offenses to help them survive their experiences, knowing that
some of them – particularly young persons – may find themselves engaging in
abusive behaviors in the future. These abusive behaviors are not necessarily
always sexual in nature, nor are they
always directed at others; they may be more inwardly destructive. In our work
with offenders, we try to help them become desisters, instead of persisters.
So, why do we do this work? Because we want to make a
difference. We care about our families, friends, and communities and through
our interventions we strive to achieve the ATSA goal of making society safer.
But, this potentially comes at a cost to each and every one of us. We know that
the work we do can be hugely exhilarating when we see the successes of our clients,
but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that there aren’t darker experiences of which we
need to be mindful.
Why do we keep doing this work?
There is no
denying that working with persons with sexual behavior problems and antisocial
orientations is challenging (see Edmunds, 1997; Ellerby, 1998; Ennis &
Horne, 2003). Some of our clients are really good at “pushing our buttons.” How
do we offset our natural tendencies to be empathic and helpful with our natural
tendencies to be angry and upset at what our clients have done (or continue to
do)? Because we know the consequences of such strong emotional responses in
clinical environments. We also know that it is unconscionable to do nothing. So,
we work to reduce the number of potential victims, knowing that poorly managed
clients have the capacity – already demonstrated – to do tremendous harm. We
work to ensure that clients receive appropriate treatment and care according to
evidence-based practices, like the Risk-Need-Responsivity framework with which
we’re all so familiar. We work to ensure
that our clients are able to approximate a quality of life as close as possible
to that of others without sexual behavior problems – that’s the essence of the
Good Lives Model.
One of my
absolutely most favorite concepts I learned in school is that of the “balanced,
self-determined lifestyle.” I try to include this phrase in almost everything I
write (as I just did here) and I try to follow it myself and to instill it in others
around me. I co-opted this concept from the YWCA’s Life Skills Coach Training
program in Canada, as they did from Saskatchewan NewStart. NewStart was a basic
job readiness training program for Aboriginal Canadians in the mid-60s. Search
it out on Google, if you like; it bears a striking resemblance to many aspects
of the GLM, but some 30 years earlier. At its heart, a balanced,
self-determined lifestyle means making time for all the important elements of
life – self, others, community, job, leisure. And, it also encourages people to
think about the range of opportunities they have in life and to make good
choices while learning from mistakes. Clearly, our clients have not always done
both of these things, and that is perhaps why they land themselves in trouble.
Job stress is the result of a complex interaction
between the individual and the challenges of the job. Burnout involves
physical, mental and emotional exhaustion that is attributable to work-related
stress (Leiter & Maslach, 2009; Mayo Clinic, 2012). It is a uniquely human phenomenon that if a person
holds the capacity for empathy, he or she will experience distress when hearing
about terrible things that have happened to others. Have any of you ever
experienced anything like that – during an assessment, when reading police
reports or victim impact statements, or during a group or individual treatment
Even though we weren’t there when our clients
committed their offenses, we are privy to intimate details of what happened.
This can lead to what is known as vicarious trauma (www.headington-institute.org; Pearlman & McKay, 2008). Because we are caring people and because we express
empathy and feel compassion, we often experience characteristics of
victimization just by hearing about what happened to others. This emotional
contagion can sometimes lead to compassion fatigue – a key component in
burnout. Ultimately, this is the cost of caring, but there are things we can do
High Risk Professionals
first thing we need to acknowledge is that we are members of a select group of
persons who are at higher risk for vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.
These workers include, but are not restricted to:
- Counselors, Psychologists, Social Workers
- Health/Hospital Staff
- Emergency Workers
- Child Protection Workers
- Corrections Staff
- Law Enforcement Officials
The effects of vicarious trauma and
compassion fatigue can be particularly pertinent to people who interview and
counsel trauma victims, those who work with victims and their families and,
notably for us, people who work with clients who have abused others.
Predictors and Mediators of Secondary
Traumatic Stress Effects
It’s important to recognize that not everyone
will be affected by troubling information or traumatic stress in the same way.
Some of us are really resilient and it doesn’t seem to matter much what we see or
hear – we get past it. Others, however, may find certain situations or
scenarios much more difficult to manage. The research on self-care and burnout
tells us that there are individual factors to consider, as well as situational and
environmental factors at play. This shouldn’t surprise us, as this is pretty
much the case with virtually everything in social services – it’s a mix of internal
and external variables.
A good bit of how we respond to traumatic
stress has to do with our personal history; that is, our personal experiences
of trauma, loss, and victimization and how we’ve managed to cope (or not) with
situations throughout our lives. Our personality style (and ego defenses) will
influence our coping style and the mechanisms we use to deal with difficult
situations – either at work or in other environments (e.g., have you ever found
yourself bringing work crap home with you?).
Another important consideration is current life
context. What’s happening for you outside of the work environment? Is your
teenage daughter or son having difficulties, are you having problems in
important relationships, has someone in your family or friend circle just
experienced a situation of abuse? All of these private life situations can
affect our ability to cope with difficult situations at work.
are some individual risk factors to consider (see Pearlman & Caringi, 2009;
Pearlman & McKay, 2008):
of organizational intentions/commitment
between values of self and organization
skills and strategies
can we do to protect ourselves? I won’t get too far into that right now, but
some obvious recommendations are to take opportunities to increase our training base and to take the time to
debrief situations we experience at work with our colleagues and trusted
confidantes. And, keep in mind that we may need to practice what we preach: If
you have problems you can’t manage, maybe think about seeking professional
As much as there are factors we bring to the
table in terms of our own personal makeup and experience bases, there are
factors over which we have a lot less control. In the beginning part of this
article, I suggested that we all made a choice to work in the field of sexual
violence prevention. I guess that means that we probably can’t, at this point,
change the nature of the work we do. Nor are we able to change the nature of
our clientele; at least, not without leaving the field.
At many of the workshops I do, I often ask
participants whether or not they work for an agency that has too much money or
too many staff. I’m never surprised by their answers. I also typically ask them
whether or not they feel like they have enough time in a day to do all the
things expected of them – either by superiors or their own work ethic. Workload
is a big factor. The more we do in a compacted work week, the less time we have
to step back and inoculate ourselves from the cumulative exposure to trauma
material. This can affect our relationships with co-workers, which can
sometimes lead to the “cubicle-effect” in which people keep their heads down,
working away in isolation and ultimately losing important social and cultural
contexts and opportunities present in the work environment.
are some workplace risk factors to consider (see Pearlman & Caringi, 2009;
Pearlman & McKay, 2008):
of tangible and intrinsic rewards
that work is valuable
the years, I’m moved away from direct service provision and more into
administration and consultation. As a worker, I knew all too well that there
were expectations on me and that there were minimum production quotas (e.g., three
psychotherapy clients a day, two groups a week, two assessments, etc.). I, too, worked in relative isolation
with little opportunity to debrief my work experiences with others. As an
administrator, I became keenly aware of the need for “real” supervision – not
the annual performance appraisal, but REAL supervision. Frankly, the last
performance appraisal I got was emailed to me by a supervisor who cared very
little for my experience of my job.
As a word, “supervision” connotes a certain
cringe-worthy experience. None of us like being informed of our faults, nor do
we like being told what to do. As such, it’s something of an unfortunate choice
of word and many of us may have experienced supervision as a chore. However, when
I say supervision here, I mean something wonderful – the opportunity to sit
down with someone who cares about you and the work you do enough to listen like
David Prescott, consider the information provided like Karl Hanson, and give
advice like Robin McGinnis. Supervision is the opportunity to share what you’re
proud of, as well as what causes you to quietly freak out. Regularly sharing
your work experiences with concerned peers or supervisors – either individually
or as a group – can have profound effects on quality of life, both
professionally and personally. And, we don’t do it often enough. Period.
Maintaining a balanced, self-determined
lifestyle is central to effective self-care. How well are you taking care of yourself? Of course, self-care needs
to be practiced in the workplace as much as in your personal life. We’ve seen
the effects of the holistic revolution in our treatment approaches with clients.
Why shouldn’t we also apply these ideas to aspects of our lives? The more
balanced we are across the full range of personal care, the more we are able to
cope with the stresses and demands that we will face in our admittedly very
challenging professional experiences.
are at less risk for burnout if they feel they have some degree of control or
influence over their work situation, believe that they are important enough to
be treated fairly, and value the work they do and are committed to it. We need
to create opportunities for
renewal, but this is a shared responsibility. We need to get out of our
cubicles and talk to one another! We need to recognize that when someone is
cooped-up in their cubicle that that’s a cause for concern and requires a
want to come out for lunch with us?”
are the sorts of questions we owe to
ourselves and others to ask. It’s often been said that there is safety in
numbers, and there is a lot of truth to this when we think about how we can
lessen the negative effects of trauma we may experience as sexual violence
you’ve been reading between the lines in this article, you may have noticed
that a lot of the concepts we apply to our clients who have sexually offended
may also hold some worth for us. Many of you will know that I have spent a lot
of time in my career working in a framework known as Circles of Support &
Accountability. One key idea behind CoSA is that “nobody does this alone” –
meaning that reintegration to the community after incarceration should not be a
solitary endeavor. I would extend the CoSA idea to other domains, including
high-risk professionals as noted above – that means us. We need a strong,
interactive, and reciprocal social support network to keep us on the right
track, too. So, look out for yourselves and your colleagues as you continue to
make society safer.
S.B. (1997). Impact: Working with sexual
abusers. Brandon, VT: Safer Society Press.
L. & Horne, S. (2003). Predicting psychological distress in sex offender
therapists. Sexual Abuse, 15,
M.P. & Maslach C. (2009). Banishing
burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. San
Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Clinic (2012). Job burnout: how to spot
it and take action. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
L.A. & Caringi, J. (2009). Living and working self-reflectively to address
vicarious trauma. In C.A. Courtois & J.D. Ford (eds), Treating complex traumatic stress disorders: An evidence-based guide,
New York: The Guilford Press.
& McKay, L. (2008). Understanding and
addressing vicarious trauma: Online training module four. Pasadena, CA:
Headington Institute. Available at: http://www.headington-institute.org/files/vtmoduletemplate2_ready_v2_85791.pdf
 Laurie Anne Pearlman is a
powerhouse in the burnout and vicarious trauma research and practice world.
This online resource – and the others that go with it – is particularly
helpful. Visit http://www.headington-institute.org.