5. Implement strategies to manage stress, vicarious trauma and critical incident stress

Stress

Work related stress comes from the many and demanding tasks in child protection and the time limits imposed in child protection work. Mental, emotional and physical exhaustion can also occur following long-term involvement in demanding situations, such as chaotic client families, highly anxious and demanding clients and abused children and youing people desperate to see their families.

To manage general stress:

  • be prepared - learn as much as possible about child protection work and the roles and emotional challenges associated with being a worker in a child protection system
  • take adequate breaks
  • exercise - physical activity and recreation helps to dissipate stress
  • avoid the use of alcohol and drugs as a means of coping with the pressures
  • discuss any work-related issues with a colleague, or line manager
  • attend regular professional supervision
  • seek additional supervision, where required
  • discuss relevant issues with an Employee Assistance Service (EAS) counsellor.

Vicarious trauma

Child protection work involves exposure to emotionally disturbing information about children, young people and families. The capacity to empathically engage with this information and listen, validate, understand and respond to the trauma of others is a vital aspect of service delivery. Exposure to traumatic material involves risk to the emotional and psychological health of staff. These risks can lead to vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma, the debilitating emotional and psychological impact of connecting with the traumatic and disturbing life events of other people, is an insidious form of stress and is pervasive in child protection work.

Vicarious trauma accumulates over time, through interactions with a variety of clients and can change the staff member's overall view of the world and the people around them. It can affect cognitive functioning and values, and can be as debilitating as primary trauma.

To reduce the risk and manage vicarious trauma, the following strategies may be useful:

  • be aware that there is a normal emotional reaction to the work of the department 
  • discuss any work-related issues with a colleague, peer support officer or line manager, or if necessary, an Employee Assistance Service counsellor
  • take responsibility for your self-care and balance work demands and personal life
  • where available, access professional supervision networks and forums
  • challenge yourself to grow professionally by working on a variety of cases, creating a plan of professional education and attending professional forums.

Critical incident stress

A critical incident can be defined as an event, outside the range of usual human experience, such as a child death a serious injury, threat to or assault of a worker. Experiences which have the potential to easily overcome a person's normal ability to cope with stress. It may produce a negative psychological response in a person who was involved in, or witnessed, such an incident.

It is generally recognised that critical incidents can have a significant impact on a person. Some may be affected to the extent that the incident lives on in their mind, and various symptoms may develop which create difficulties in their functioning in normal day-to-day activities. Such reactions are not considered abnormal.

As a first response, staff may choose to discuss the issue with a line manager, or seek individual support through the EAS of Child Safety. In addition, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) may be provided by professional psychological debriefers from the EAS. It usually involves all staff who were directly involved in, or who witnessed, the critical incident. Any staff member involved in a critical incident can request debriefing.

Preferably CISD is carried out after all initial post incident enquires have been completed, such as police reports and medical attention, where required. Critical incident debriefing should occur between 24 and 72 hours after a critical incident, to be most effective. This can be arranged through a SWIM advisor or line manager.