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Whether you support people with multi-complex needs and/or want to develop strategies to prioritise your own wellbeing, here are some important learnings for you to build upon your own.

The impact of vicarious trauma

I recently attended a highly enjoyable training course organised by Homeless Link. ‘Stress, Vicarious Trauma and Managing Wellbeing’ focused on self-care and best practice within support services. The aim was to ensure that the right steps and actions are taken to ensure that as practitioners, we are looking after ourselves and our own wellbeing, as well as others.

Being somewhat new to support work, the course challenged many of my beliefs and practices I had picked up from other customer-facing roles. Judging by the comments made by fellow attendees, I was not alone. Much of the training focused on wanting to do as much as possible for our clients and having all the answers to their needs.

“Understandably, emotions can run high in this line of work and become draining. However, it is how we deal with it that will ultimately result in how we do or do not cope, and the ability to make the next appointment or call.”

Being a listening ear for people is a privileged position to be in, but it can also be exhausting and can even lead to vicarious trauma. This can affect your ability to continue to work and how you treat others in and out of work. Ultimately, we are human beings with our own relationships and connections that must be maintained. The conflicting emotions and heightened challenges associated with the pandemic on top of an intense workload can result in shutting off people who are an important source of support. Having suffered with elements of yet another lockdown this was a much-needed wake-up call. I will be the first to admit my lockdown self-care protocols have been far from perfect this time around. Following the training, I began taking walks every morning and some evenings (depending on the weather).

The importance of resilience

Another key learning was the importance of resilience: the ability to ‘bounce-back.’ I learnt that this was a contentious topic given that it was initially seen as a ‘bad term’ which suggests a lack of processing of what may have occurred and dealing with the subsequent stress. However, once unpicked it was clear that the terminology was not the issue, rather how ‘bouncing back’ can instead result in poor self-care as mentioned above. For me, bouncing back was a completely normal phrase, but not one I have ever used. Coming from previous people-facing roles, I am comfortable analysing what may have gone right or wrong and how to improve upon this the next time. Understandably, emotions can run high in this line of work and become draining. However, it is how we deal with it that will ultimately result in how we do or do not cope, and the ability to make the next appointment or call.

To move on, we must first understand what has happened, what was said, how the client is feeling and what we can do to assist. It’s important to understand that clients are not always blaming you, rather venting their frustrations is essential in staying present and building that resilience. The course convenor stressed the importance of processing the emotions and responses in understanding how to move forward and provide areas to be improved upon next time.

A coffee break has become my chosen habit in taking a moment to slow down, take stock of what has occurred so far and prioritise what needs completing before the end of the day. At the end of the day, I move all signs of work out of sight and abstain from technology, sitting with a book until dinnertime.

Supporting emotional wellbeing and complex needs

Sometimes it can feel difficult knowing that clients who are struggling emotionally are often leaning heavily on you. As mentioned earlier, the practitioner-client relationship is vital and also rewarding but the caveat is that it can often be emotionally draining. Working with individuals that have mental health diagnoses, or undiagnosed conditions, moving houses and financially unstable can be difficult. Many of these clients have lived experiences that are beyond that of our own and so it can feel that providing an outlet is the best we can do. As someone who prides themselves on their ability to strengthen and build connections with others, this was a particularly challenging topic. However, as the convenor of the day said, all of our clients have already gotten through their worst days. We can only do so much to help our clients and sometimes we must weigh up how much we can do and the emotional toll it can take on us. It is an understandable point, but one that I continue to think over. Knowing a client is facing tough times, I have definitely picked up the phone, knowing there is a little I can offer, simply providing them with an opportunity to offload.

A key learning for me was: By looking after ourselves and responding to our own needs as a priority is vital in these trying times. As counterintuitive or difficult as that may seem, ensuring we are looking after our own needs first will result in our best practice as we contend with the ‘new normal’. Whether you work in people-facing roles and/or want to develop strategies to prioritise your own wellbeing, I would certainly recommend you attend the ‘Stress, Vicarious Trauma and Managing Wellbeing’ workshop by Homeless Link.

We’re grateful to be part of the Homeless Link network which offers us training and opportunities to connect with others in the sector. Visit Homeless Link's events and training page for upcoming training opportunities.

Kineara is an award-winning community interest company that supports people facing challenging times in housing, education and employment. You can find out more about their tailormade support services or contact info@kineara.co.uk