One Thing We Forget When We Care for a Living
Here’s the thing that most of us take for granted about working in human services (at least I did):
We don’t see people at their best. Instead, we see them at their worst.
My goal with what I’m about to ask you isn’t to re-traumatize you. But, for just a moment, think back to the most stressful or the scariest time in your life.
Maybe you were in a bad accident.
Maybe your child was in the emergency room.
Maybe you simply didn’t plan well and spent your day rushing to appointments that each took twice as long as you planned.
How clearly were you thinking?
If you were given instructions or new information, how well were you able to listen and comprehend everything? Did you feel compelled to go back at a later time to apologize for your behavior, to explain that you were merely upset and not thinking straight?
When our bodies (and brains) are under duress, we generally don’t make our best decisions.
Sometimes we’re downright rude to the people who are trying to help us—because we expect them to understand, right? After all, we’re rational human beings. We deserve respect no matter what.
And yet, sometimes we just don’t give our fellow stressed-out human beings the same level of respect that they also deserve.
We forget that we’re seeing people at their worst. We expect them to be able to follow along with rapid-fire directives. We expect them to hear us and understand the first time. We don’t take the time to extend the same courtesies (which are called Supportive responses in the Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training program) that we needed when it was us.
There are other variables, of course.
Many of us work with people who have a limited menu of coping strategies available to them.
As a result, we may never get an apology for the behaviors that were displayed or a thank-you for our work.
And we have to be OK with that—because it’s not about us. If we are in our respective fields for recognition and accolades, then we’re probably setting ourselves up to be disappointed and burnt out.
So we see people at their worst, and it’s not about us.
These two factors are two BIG contributors to why people tend to burn out in human services, and why some organizations experience such a high level of staff turnover.
So what can be done?
To start, we have to look at the top.
1. Do our administrations support staff?
Do they recognize the efforts that staff put into their everyday jobs? Even when looking at EAP plans, do they do research to ensure that whatever program they decide to use is something that will be valuable to staff when staff need it most?
2. Does administration provide adequate training for the roles of staff?
Too often, I hear that staff are thrust into the milieu with no training whatsoever. This sets them up for failure, and it’s easy to see how they don’t feel like their organizations have their backs.
3. Are there policies in place that can guide staff’s decisions?
Policies and procedures support staff in that they let staff know what actions are acceptable versus unacceptable (our crisis response planning checklist can help). Staff need to know this information in order to do their jobs well. Bonus if the policy is interlaced with the training program—because the policy can often answer the question, “Why do we have to do this?” The best training offers answers about how.
4. What do staff debriefings feel like?
Do staff view debriefings as a place where they learn about all the things they did wrong? Where they learn about what they “should” have done?
Certainly, if there are performance issues, if policies weren’t followed—or regulations, for that matter—those things need to be addressed.
Debriefings will ideally be major learning opportunities for staff, and staff will be more open to learning if they feel emotionally safe.
One way to foster this emotional safety is to ensure that the positive aspects of staff’s behaviors and interventions are brought out in debriefing sessions. Another way is to ask staff what they think they might have done differently. Staff members—especially those who provide direct care—may have some powerful insights and ideas about what works best. They just need a forum where they can be heard.
5. Do staff have the chance to practice new interventions?
Out of those debriefing sessions, new strategies may be presented. Is it possible to provide opportunities for staff to practice the things that they will need to change about their behavior? Behavior change isn’t easy—for the people in our care or for us. Practice can help staff become more comfortable with new things before putting them into practice with a potentially vulnerable (or violent) person.
6. What’s your workplace culture like?
Strong support from administration will often trickle down to then affect the overarching workplace culture of your organization. An administration that takes better care of its employees will likely have employees that take better care of those served—and of each other.
Most human services workers tell me that they would be lost without their colleagues; their colleagues are often the people who truly understand what it is they do day in and day out. So it’s important that we support our colleagues—especially because we’ll probably see them at their worst, too—and vice versa.
Human services work works with humans.
And let’s admit it: We aren’t the easiest species to get along with.
We all have our own feelings, emotions, values, interests, and stress levels.
AND all of these aspects can create conflict and crisis.
BUT if we step back, and remember that we all feel emotions; that we all get stressed out, then we can create compassion as well.
Which leads to successful interventions.
And to our greatest intention: Prevention.