Using Learning Theory to Combat Burnout in Child Welfare Professionals

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kendall-headshotI represented children in child protection proceedings for about six years before the weight of the work — the dichotomy between small victories and what felt like an insurmountable mountain of community, family and bureaucratic hurdles — became too heavy for me to carry. Toward the end, I felt ineffective, tired and disillusioned. A particularly gruesome case of abuse and neglect hastened a career move away from direct service work.

My experience is not uncommon.

The literature refers to it as secondary or vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Many of us, whether we’ve worked in child welfare, justice, education, health or other human service systems, have simply called it burnout.

A recent mixed methods study noted that recruitment and retention of child welfare professionals remains challenging. National turnover rates range between 20 to 40 percent annually. Tenures at child welfare agencies average less than two years.

Workforce and secondary trauma training materials emphasize the important role organizational culture has on individuals who work with and provide services to children or adults who have experienced trauma. A 2015 study of approximately 300 trauma workers found organizational culture, as well trauma-informed caregiver development (e.g., peer support networks), can significantly influence an employee’s well-being, retention and what the author called “compassion satisfaction.”

In a May 18, 2016, Youth Today article, Jeanette Hercik, Ph.D., from ICF introduced a research-informed framework for applying trauma-informed care principles to a range of human service systems that touch youth and young adults who have been exposed to violence or trauma. She suggested that building staff and organizational capacity to be trauma-informed requires an understanding of traumatology and brain science, as well as a keen knowledge of learning theory (the art and science of how adults learn).

In the new year and with an uncertain political and policy landscape afoot, youth-serving agencies must prioritize how traumatic experiences, both new and old, may affect their participants and their staff. Understanding trauma’s effects requires programs to build processes that not only identify trauma, but empathize and build understanding around it. This culture shift will require programs to assess how their staff learn, take in, retain and, ultimately, act on new information.

For example, there are many signs of potential secondary traumatic stress among human service workers. A 2012 article from the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare shared a range of causes and signs of stress among child welfare workers. Common causes of burnout, the article found, include poor agency and on-the-job training, high caseloads, lack of worker control or influence in policymaking and communication problems in the workplace. The authors also shared signs of indirect trauma exposure among staff, which included feeling emotionally numb, gaps in memory, trouble sleeping (or staying awake), angry outbursts and difficulty concentrating, among others.

A trauma-informed approach that addresses these concerns must include organizational changes that create shared understandings among staff about trauma and its effects. They must identify opportunities for staff involvement in organizational policy changes, build peer and supervisory supports that allow for worker self-care and, importantly, articulate and disseminate these precepts in ways that build and sustain institutional (and individual) knowledge.

In effect, by contemplating how we learn best, organizations serving the traumatized can more effectively change how we work. Adult learning theory can help drive and inform the implementation of a trauma-informed approach by developing training and peer and supervisory support protocols that are more likely to be retained and used day-to-day. Drawing from proven and emerging principles about how adults learn, trauma-informed trainings or protocols should:

  • Identify and rely upon our internal motivators and desire for self-direction to build useful and meaningful trauma-informed approaches. If we understand why we need information and not just what the information is, we will be motivated to learn. We will have a sense of control about the information we receive and be motivated to use it.
  • Bring our own life experiences and knowledge to the trauma-informed learning and organizational culture shift process. We learn best when information we receive builds on what we already know or have experienced.
  • Identify our goals and readiness to learn. We become ready to learn when we have a need to cope with real-world situations. We want to test/apply concepts to situations that are similar to our jobs and organizations and feel that new approaches are relatable and apply to our situations.
  • Be goal-orientated and practical. It is important to specify as clearly as possible the result that is expected from us, as learners. Describing the specific actions we need to take as a result of the new learning — and how those actions will be tracked and measured — will build a lasting shift in organizational policy and practices.

Early literature on human service burnout first emerged almost four decades ago. The terminology has changed since then, and with good reason, as its early machinations didn’t fully encompass the negative experiences and consequences the stress of secondary trauma can cause. The balance between our own individual and family needs with those of our vulnerable clients is often a hard one to strike. For organizations to successfully address these complexities requires an understanding of how we view ourselves, our own experiences and goals, as well as how we learn.

Jessica R. Kendall, JD, is a senior technical specialist at ICF, where she works on projects relating to vulnerable children and families. She has written numerous articles relating to child welfare and juvenile justice practice and policy. This is the third in a three-part series by ICF on topics relating to trauma-informed care. The first was published May 18, 2016, and the second on Aug. 3, 2016.