1st September 2015
Are you struggling to switch off? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
As a trainer and assessor for SafeLives, I get to meet Idvas from all over the UK. Whilst there are many local issues that affect practice, there are some things I hear over and over – no matter where I go.
One Idva I spoke to recently summed it up nicely. “I’ve been an Idva for 4 years and I love this job,” she explained. “But it’s hard and it feels like it’s getting harder. Other services are being cut, so referrals are shooting up. Resources are short and long-term contracts are few and far between. There’s no real feeling of security.”
On top of all this, Idvas hear about the abuse and trauma experienced by others, day after day. They see the aftermath of the very worst of human behaviour. So it’s no wonder they find it hard to leave their work stresses at the office.
Often, Idvas will describe themselves as being ‘burnt out’.
Whilst this may well be the case, sometimes what they‘re experiencing is something called vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma results from repeated exposure to the trauma of others. It impacts on our physical and mental health and alters our view of the world. We stop feeling safe.
If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ll remember the cabin crew giving you a safety demonstration before take-off (or perhaps you were browsing the duty-free catalogue at that point?). Anyway, they talk about oxygen masks coming down from the ceiling and remind everyone to put on their own mask before helping others with theirs. We often use this analogy during training when talking about self-care. Sometimes we need a reminder that, in order to give others the best support possible, we first have to take care of ourselves.
Of course services have a responsibility to look after their staff – in our Idva training we make recommendations about the support Idvas need to manage the impact their work has on their wellbeing. But is there anything else you can do to look after yourself and minimise the impact of vicarious trauma?
Here are my top tips, based on conversations with Idvas and other professionals.
Some of them might seem basic and some might just sound like wishful thinking. But start with one and then build on it, and you’ll see how quickly new habits can develop.
- Have clear boundaries. Be clear where your role begin and ends. Ensure that clients and other professionals understand the limitations of your support. Idvas are not an emergency service.
- Take lunch breaks and if possible, get away from your desk. Even a walk round the block will give your eyes a rest from that computer screen and give you space to breathe.
- Book (and take!) your annual leave and any time owing. Having regular breaks from work in your diary will ensure that you maintain work/life balance and don’t get burnt out.
- Get some exercise. I know this is predictable, but exercise boosts endorphins and allows our brains and bodies to deal with stress and anxiety much better. You don’t have to take up triathlons (unless you want to), a walk at lunchtime or at the end of the day is a great start.
- Eat well. It is tempting to reach for your comfort food of choice when things get stressful, but unfortunately we tend to crave things that do not give our bodies what they need and often send our blood sugar levels all over the place (I am looking at you, chocolate doughnut). Try to keep a balance and give yourself the right fuel to get through the day feeling good.
- Ask for help. If you are struggling with something, tell someone. You are not a superhero. Make use of supervision opportunities, formal or informal. It might be hard to prioritise this when you have a to-do list as long as your arm, but busy times are when you need it most.
- Do things you enjoy. Whatever they may be. Reading, baking, running, knitting, dancing to the radio, hula hooping, or watching kittens on the internet. Anything that quiets your mind and lowers your blood pressure. If it involves exercise of some sort, then that’s two birds with one stone!
- Relax. Yes, I know it’s not always that simple. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness can all help you remember how to switch off. There are some great apps for getting started. Patchouli oil optional.
- Get enough sleep. If you work on numbers 4 and 8, hopefully this one will be easier.
- Block time out for admin. It will help keep your head clear for your next client.
- Look out for each other. Peer support is really important. Be aware if one of the team is having a hard time. Targets and cuts can all too often force us to focus on the negatives. Build a culture of recognising and celebrating achievements too, the big and the small.
So those are my suggestions. I know it sounds like a lot and you are really busy but if you only change one thing, here’s what you should do: take time for you. Because you are important. And in order to be able to support others, we have to look after ourselves first.