For years, the concept of “self-care” has been promoted as a way that workers can sustain themselves while helping people who have experienced trauma. At BARCC, we look for every opportunity to support our team members, and we encourage taking walks, getting coffee or snacks, working out—and all of the things we can and should do to care for ourselves. But there are limits to this approach. Organizations throughout the victim services field have a responsibility to strategically take on employee well-being at the organizational level.
For people who work to end sexual violence—who support survivors on a daily basis and witness suffering regularly—the ongoing exposure to trauma (what we call “vicarious trauma”) is a significant workplace challenge. This is also true for first responders, social workers, people supporting survivors of domestic violence, and so on. In order for our staff and volunteers to be most effective in their work with survivors, families, schools, etc., they need to be supported in managing the particular stresses of this work. The effects of unmanaged vicarious trauma can lead to negative emotional and health consequences, poor job performance, and burnout. Like other fields have done, the victim services field needs to ask itself what the organization’s role is in managing vicarious trauma.
Paying attention to the well-being of staff and volunteers not only makes sense from a human perspective, it also makes business sense. Engaged and satisfied people turn over less, decreasing training and recruitment costs and increasing the leadership potential within the organization. Importantly, the way staff and volunteers are treated directly impacts the quality of care provided to survivors and communities who count on BARCC.
Several years ago I began to invest in this line of thought, reading (check out the Relational Coordination Research Collaborative), and talking to other leaders in our field and other related fields, including health care. What would it take to maintain the capacity for caring and empathy in staff and volunteers who do rape crisis work? Instead of thinking about what the individual does, I started thinking about organizational strategies that can facilitate, rather than create barriers to, well-being.
Here are some examples of how we expanded our thinking from individual self-care to systemic organizational thinking.
Go to the gym (aka take care of your health)
Provide professional level salaries (so a gym membership is possible if desired!)
Are we offering the best health benefits?
What is the length of the expected work day?
Are workstations comfortable and do we provide accommodations?
Get a massage (aka do something for yourself)
Provide professional level salaries (so a massage is possible!)
Provide leadership and advancement opportunities
Provide high quality regular supervision to each person
Ensure each person is seen holistically
Go to therapy (aka take your problems elsewhere)
Provide professional level salaries (so therapy is possible if desired!)
Provide a positive workplace culture
Celebrate individual and group accomplishments and milestones
I now have a habit of always moving my thinking to what role the organization can play. How is the quality of supervision for that staff person? Is that salary at least as good as similarly situated nonprofits? How can we provide the most options in benefits packages? Are we offering enough in the way of leadership and decision-making guidance? How can we resolve problems directly and respectfully? Are we promoting the use of vacation time and keeping workloads manageable so a real break is possible?
These are not quick fixes, but this change in who owns responsibility has markedly changed our practice. For example, we have focused significant resources on expanding staffing to make workloads more manageable. We joined a professional employer organization (PEO) to offer a more expansive array of benefits at lower cost. We increased the focus and training for direct communication that is both respectful and clear. We have spent time clarifying our expectations so that a diverse staff can know what it takes to be successful.
We have shared much of this framework formally as one of several leaders in an exciting project to develop a national resource to address vicarious trauma. The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit, federally funded by the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) and developed at Northeastern University’s Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice, offers an organizational assessment and links to tools that can help once you identify the aspects of the organization that need work. The site focuses on four fields: police, fire, emergency medical services, and victim services. We hope the toolkit is widely used and will eventually expand to include more disciplines.
So, if you’re an organizational leader in the field, keep this in mind: the next time you see one of your staff looking tired and being irritable, while “you should take care of yourself” self-care ideas start coming out of your mouth, be sure you think about the organization’s responsibilities, too.
Gina Scaramella, LICSW, provides the vision and strategic leadership to advance BARCC's mission. As executive director since 2003, she works closely with people within and outside of the organization to continually grow and improve it. Gina began at BARCC as a volunteer hotline counselor in 1989 before heading to graduate school. She joined staff in 1995 to coordinate the medical and legal advocacy programs. Gina has grown BARCC’s budget nearly threefold and developed the infrastructure to ensure BARCC's positive impact for survivors, in our communities, and beyond.
Gina has worked nationally as an expert with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was part of the EMPOWER leadership team, which was tasked with formulating Massachusetts’s approach to preventing sexual violence. She also served as an expert for the federal Defending Childhood Project of the Boston Public Health Commission. Currently she is on the board of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program, the project management team of the National Telenursing Center, the advisory board for the Indicators Project of the Vera Center for Justice, and the leadership team of the National Vicarious Trauma Tool Kit project with Northeastern University. Gina holds an LICSW license and earned her master of social work degree from Boston University.