Everything Depends on It

"Ming," a child welfare worker, was talking to me recently about one of her cases, a family being investigated for neglect and abuse of their baby. She said something I’ve been thinking of constantly — “The biggest problems I’ve had in this situation have been when my boss and I have tried to communicate about this. We misunderstand each other, things get lost in translation. I know we’re both trying to do our best, but this situation is so complicated. At my agency, we go to so many trainings about how to work with our clients — everything you can think of.  But we don’t have anything that teaches us how to communicate with each other when the stakes are so high.

Many workplaces could use tools for better communication. But organizations whose mission is to help people in crisis are dealing with extra stress--the stress of witnessing their clients' trauma. This takes a toll on individuals, but also on the whole system.  

There are lots of solutions to be had — maybe it’s more flex time. Maybe it’s more regular meetings with supervisors, or mentoring from someone who knows the ropes.  Groups come to these solutions if they have time and good facilitation.  Even more than that, though, I’ve experienced that simply naming what they're experiencing--Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) --is powerful. The fatigue, lack of creativity, or high incidents of conflict in caregiving organizations aren’t because they’re “dysfunctional,” or because “non-profits just don’t have it together.” Working in crisis situations takes a toll — not just on individuals, but on whole groups. It shows up in how employees interact with one another, what norms crop up around the office, or how long people stay in their jobs.

Ming and her co-workers go home at night with a different kind of tiredness than a landscaper or a machinist might. Amazingly, Ming and her coworkers might not even know that — crisis is just the air they breathe. I want them to breathe easier, to come together and stay strong. Everything depends on it.