As counsellors and helpers, we know about vicarious trauma and burnout all too well. This is because many of us walk alongside folks who have experienced very painful things, including emotional and psychological abuse and/or physical and sexual violations and violence. I used to hear and read about self-care strategies early in my career, but they often didn’t resonate with me. I figured I wasn’t doing self-care properly, and it felt like a chore to try some of the strategies suggested.
After I had already been doing frontline trauma work for 10 years, I came across a manual titled “Don’t Tell Me to Take a Bubble Bath.” While it wasn’t actually a resource for self-care, the title spoke to me because the standard tips for avoiding burnout and creating resilience didn’t seem to be present in my lifestyle, nor did they appeal to me. I always thought I wasn’t doing self-care correctly and that sooner or later the work would catch up with me.
The deep connection that happens when we stand beside someone and witness their pain can heal our wounds too.
I’ve often wondered how I have managed to continue in this work for 32 years without sustaining serious injury to my soul. However, what I have found helpful is honouring what works for me instead of pressuring myself to take a bubble bath or sign up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat.
What follows is a list of personal protective measures I have taken against the risk factors for burnout in my life. These are not tips that I have learned to practice – they are observations I have made about myself over time. I encourage you to increase your resilience by exploring how you respond to your work. This will help you identify person protective measures that will help you prevent vicarious trauma and burnout.
Create a sense of purpose in your work.
For me, my attitude toward the work I do is likely the most important protective factor against burnout. I don’t see myself as the “fixer” in a client’s life, and I work hard to fend off those nagging hopes and expectations that can creep into the work. The nonjudgemental, strengths-based connection I have with those I support is what gives me energy and hope. The deep connection that happens when we stand beside someone and witness their pain can heal our wounds too. I believe that my connection with the client is a protective factor when it is not influenced by my expectations or external goals. We walk as equals with our clients and learn from them as much as they learn from us.
See the strengths in yourself, your colleagues, and those you work with. Being strengths-based is a very well-known social work value and evidence-based practice, but it is actually quite challenging to practice it well in all areas of our lives. When I look at my own attitude toward myself, my loved ones, colleagues, and those I work with, I notice that I often see the positive parts. However, I know that I need some TLC when I am not seeing their strengths.
Trust that you know what you need.
I was very tired of work in my late twenties and took a short leave of absence as a result. I felt guilty about it because, up until that point, being mentally tired seemed like an impossibility for me. I tried to force myself to go to my therapist, but I just didn’t feel like it. When I got there, I told her that what I really wanted was to not talk about work at all. I wanted to leave, but also felt it was the wrong thing to do – that I should stay back and process things in therapy. However, I booked a flight to India and came back three months later feeling refreshed. We need to trust what we need – to reach out and connect or to run and hide. Building that self-awareness and trust in ourselves can take time and requires help from supports in our lives.
Keep joy alive in your life.
I have realized that laughing is both a medicine and a barometer for me. If I haven’t been laughing hard for a few days, I know that something is off balance and I need intervention. It can be hard to find joy and laughter when you don’t feel like it. To me, that’s a sign that you need to go back and assess what used to make you feel joy and try to reconnect with it in whatever way you can. Or look for new sources of joy and fun.
Self-care is not something that we do after work – it’s embedded in the way that we think about and engage with our clients.
Balance your schedule.
The most important part of working balance into your schedule is knowing how scheduling works for you. Some find no schedule and a more free-flow style of living to be lifegiving. For me, having a plan and executing it with intention is helpful. Creating balance in your schedule is about making sure there’s time to be social and time to be alone. Or considering when you want to be busy versus when you should practice stillness. We are all different, and some of us need to run sprints to find balance, while others need to sit quietly – or some of us need to do both! Balancing your schedule may mean you also need to make changes according to what’s happening in your life and work at the time.
Collaborate with others.
Whenever possible, I encourage the folks I work with to engage with more supports and services. When this does happen, I seek to work together with the other professional (when I have permission). Knowing I am not the only one in that person’s life and having other disciplines to complement the counselling services I offer can be a lifesaver for me. It’s a protective factor so that I don’t feel alone with some of the awful things I bear witness to.
Bring curiosity and challenge into your life.
Try something new or explore something you’ve had little experience with. I think it helps when it engages different senses – different smells and scenery, or new sensations of touch. I think that’s why I have always enjoyed travelling and going on outdoor adventures. When you are completely absorbed with all of your senses, you are able to stay totally in the present – and those traumatic responses of fight, flight, or freeze can’t catch up with you!
As frontline workers, we often feel that we are not practicing the self-care strategies that are recommended to us. However, the first step is looking at the protective factors and risks that are already present in our own lives. We can do this by examining without bias the habits and ways of thinking that may already be a part of our self-care.
In my experience, self-care is not something that we do after work – it’s embedded in the way that we think about and engage with our clients. It’s the way we view the world and those around us in a positive light, and how we stay open and curious to everything we encounter. Building awareness about ourselves and then trusting that awareness is key to our own health as well as that of our clients. Trusting what we need and knowing how to balance those needs is key. That balance includes what we need to do alone and when we need to reach out to others. This work is difficult, but with care and attention it can give us back twice as much as what we put in.
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