Research Roundup: How Can Family and Youth Workers Get More Satisfaction From Their Jobs?

Photograph of a smiling young professional woman.

Although they may not know what to call it, family and youth workers often experience "secondary trauma" when they work with clients who come from traumatic environments. Secondary trauma can manifest itself in many ways, from staff members' feelings of anger and sadness over a client’s situation to their frustration when they don't have the tools to do their jobs effectively.

We know very little about what prevents and reduces these common experiences in the field of social services. Here, we look at one seminal article and two recent ones that explore the impact of secondary trauma in the social work profession and introduce frameworks for addressing the issue at the individual level and beyond.

A Broad Mindset of Self-Care

According to the authors of "The Social Psychology of Compassion," a seminal article published in 2007 in Clinical Social Work Journal, self-care is just one of several factors needed to promote compassion satisfaction, or feelings of fulfillment from helping others. The authors introduce a model for compassion satisfaction, writing that resources also make a difference, including physical, intellectual and social assets. And family and youth workers who feel positive, grateful and upbeat have been shown to use more flexible and creative approaches when solving problems.

Looking past self-care to the bigger issue of compassion satisfaction, the authors say, builds on most social workers’ desire to help others. They also point to research showing that people with high degrees of positivity were more likely to be viewed as “flourishing” in school or the workplace compared to their more negative counterparts.  

Caring for the Personal and Professional Self

While self-care is only a piece of the puzzle, it's a crucial one. "A Self-care Framework for Social Workers: Building a Strong Foundation for Practice," published in May in the journal Families in Society, explores self-care as a way for social workers to support their own physical, psychological, social, leisure and spiritual well-being. Self-care strategies generally focus on activities the person finds enjoyable and rejuvenating, anything from playing football to talking to a friend. This personalized approach, the authors write, makes it difficult for researchers to identify a common definition or consistently measure self-care’s impact.

The article also looks at the way individuals can practice self-care in a professional setting. Organizations can support employees by asking them to develop their own self-care plans and encouraging strategies like mindful time management and self-advocacy.

Looking Beyond Self

You may have noticed that you are more likely to feel positive about your work if the organizational culture at your workplace promotes a supportive, healing environment for everyone. The Sanctuary model, a trauma-informed intervention developed in the early 1980s, is one evidence-informed approach that seeks to create that kind of atmosphere. Proponents of the model bring a structured approach to creating an organizational culture that allows clients and staff to build healing relationships. The model also requires organizations to commit to a core value system, which includes tenets like open communication and nonviolence.

"The Sanctuary Model: Theoretical Framework," published this year in Families in Society,  describes the theoretical framework on which the Sanctuary model is based. It uses a socioecological logical model to incorporate activities and outcomes at the individual, interpersonal, organizational and community levels. While the conditions for youth workers to practice healthy self-care in and out of work operate at each of these levels, the researchers emphasize individual or group meetings where staff can discuss experiences with secondary trauma and self-care and update their safety plans. Taking this approach, they write, creates a structured, healthy environment in which service providers can promote resilience for clients and one another. 

Family and youth workers interested in learning more about signs of secondary trauma and what they can do to reduce it, can read the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's self-care overview (PDF, 21KB).

Read the Articles

"A Self-care Framework for Social Workers: Building a Strong Foundation for Practice" (abstract). Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, Vol. 94, No. 2 (May 2013).

"The Social Psychology of Compassion" (abstract). Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 35 (June 2007).

"The Sanctuary Model: Theoretical Framework" (abstract). Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, Vol. 94, No. 2 (May 2013).

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