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Staff well-being and the challenge of ‘burn-out’

  • Working on the problem of violence against women and girls, particularly in an emergency or post-conflict setting, can be challenging in many ways: staff may repeatedly be exposed to distressing stories of victimization; the problem may seem overwhelming and the workload unmanageable; staff may not have sufficient support from supervisors who themselves are overwhelmed; staff who interact directly with survivors may experience difficulty in keeping a professional distance.  This may be particularly challenging for staff who have experienced violence themselves.
  • As a result, staff may experience burn-out; signs might include headaches, fatigue, lowered immune function, irritability, and loss of interest in the work. The best way to manage burn-out is to prevent it, which requires on-going and proper supervision and support of staff members (Vann, 2002).
  • VAWG organizations should work to maintain the well-being of staff and ensure that they have access to a variety of strategies to reduce stress, such as:
    • self-care (see Claramunt, 1999)
    • teamwork
    • satisfactory labour conditions and structures
    • continuing education
    • psychological care
    • reasonable working hours and regular vacations.
  • Organizations should also educate staff about the symptoms of burn-out so that they learn to recognize them in themselves or their colleagues.  When an organization ensures the well-being of its staff members, it can provide them with greater job satisfaction, make them more able to address the needs of the survivors, and reduce staff turnover

Source: Ward, J. 2004a. “Communication Skills in Working with Survivors of Gender-Based Violence: A Five-Day Training Curriculum,” Day 4 Handout.  Reproductive Health Response in Conflict Consortium.

Additional Tools:

Bryce, P., PAHO, 2001. Insights into the Concept of Stress.  This resource, developed by the Program on Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Relief of the Pan American Health Organization, provides disaster response personnel with basic knowledge and skills on the principles of stress and critical incident stress management. As a companion to the Stress Management in Disasters (SMID) book, the resources assist emergency response personnel to recognize stress and manage their emotional responses to traumatic situations, such as disasters. Although the book was developed for emergency and disaster response personnel, the principles, may be modified and applied to prevent and address traumatic stress within the broader community, including with children and adolescents. Available in English.

The National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women has several resources related to supporting staff who work directly with survivors, including: 

  • Guidebook on Vicarious Trauma: Recommended Solutions for Anti-violence Workers, Jan I. Richardson, Centre for Research on Violence Against Women and Children, National Clearinghouse on Family Violence (2001)
Attempts to recognize the unique experiences of anti-violence workers in Canada, promoting individual, equity, and organizational supports. This guidebook explores the response to vicarious trauma within certain communities and cultural groups.
  • Organizational Prevention of Vicarious Trauma, Holly Bell, Shanti Kulkarni, and Lisa Dalton, Families and Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services (October-December 2003)
this article discusses the importance of work environment in the development of vicarious trauma problems for domestic and sexual violence workers.
  • Trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Secondary Trauma, Barbara Whitmer, Education Wife Assault (2001)
This article clearly defines trauma, PTSD, and secondary trauma and how secondary trauma affects those who work with traumatized clients.
  • Vicarious Trauma: Bearing Witness to Another's Trauma, Terri S. Nelson, 
Gives a brief discussion about what vicarious trauma is and how important it is that advocates/counselors be aware of it, recognize the warning signs, and take care of ourselves.