The work child welfare professionals do is among the most stressful of all occupations. Answering Child Protective Services (CPS) calls, removing youth from homes, listening to shocking stories told by terrified young people, placing youth into foster homes, fielding calls from distressed bio-parents and disillusioned foster parents, and facilitating visits between youth and their parents are all incredibly stressful for most adults.
On top of these stressors, child welfare professionals routinely cope with massive amounts of case notes and paperwork, ever-evolving policies and statues, larger and larger caseloads, changes in administrators, and exhausting co-worker burnout rates.
These stressors are compounded by comparatively low rates of pay and high amounts of secondary trauma (the emotional impact resulting from listening to the firsthand traumas of others).
It’s no wonder that the overall turnover rate for child welfare professionals hovers around 90%. That level of turnover cripples many child welfare agencies. I work with one such public agency where the turnover was more than 90% and the Director spent nearly 1/3 of her annual budget recruiting and training new workers.
The stress of the work we do in child welfare is very high and at times it seems unrelenting. As with other stressful types of workplaces, there are “stress busters” that can alleviate some of the stress and anxiety inherent in child welfare work. Here are some we’ve found most effective or most promising:
- Personalized work spaces. The calmest and least stressful child welfare work environments I’ve seen have professionals whose work spaces are tailored to their lives. They have pictures of family, friends, and vacation spots, favorite sayings, and mementos that have personal meaning and value. One professional I know well has a work environment with small statues of giraffes, photos of 2 Hawaiian beaches, 2 small model airplanes, an inspirational saying, and two objects that remind him of music he loves. When the work gets intense, those objects have great value in lowering the stress.
- Walking, exercise, and stretching. A 15 minute walk during the day can release a great deal of built up tension. Some researchers have found that 60 seconds of stretching can relieve as much stress as 30 minutes on a treadmill. Just moving helps!
- Indoor plants. Plants release oxygen. The color green is generally a soothing color for the human eye. Some avoid indoor plants because they don’t have “green thumbs.” Here are some indoor plants that even people with brown thumbs can’t kill:
- English Ivy
- Shamrock plant
- Peace Lily
- Jade plant
- Rubber Tree
- Snake plant
- Spider plant
- Heart-leaf philodendron
- Fiddle-Leaf Fig (can get enormous, need space for this one)
- Tabletop games. If your manager and space permit, acquire a simple tabletop game or two in a break room or cafeteria. These range from cerebral games such as chess or checkers to active games like air hockey or miniature billiards.
- Pop Bubble Wrap. At the Seattle Downs Group LLC headquarters, the building management keeps a very large supply of bubble wrap, mostly recycled from incoming package deliveries. We frequently get a supply to reduce stress simply by popping the bubbles.
- In-office chair massages. Many companies contract with a local massage therapist to come in once a week to offer in-office chair massages. Similar to the ones you might see in a large airport, these typically last 10 – 15 minutes, are low cost, and deliver huge physical relief from stress.
- Yoga and mindful breathing. Yoga classes aren’t just about physical flexibility. They are also very much about mindful breathing. Psychologists are finding that 2 – 3 minutes of focused breathing a few times during the day can alleviate a great deal of stress. One app I’ve used often for this purpose is “DoAsOne,” in which you get instant coaching on how to quickly focus your breathing and relax.
- Fresh air. Even if it isn’t practical to go on a walk outside, the act of getting fresh, outside air can reduce a great deal of stress.
- Healthy snacks and hydration. With the hectic pace of many child welfare environments, it is too easy to eat snacks and beverages loaded with carbs, sugars, and additives. Some of those snacks fuel stress. One way to change this is to buy fresh fruit and veggies for the office. Add in the recommended 8, 8-ounce glasses of water (a half gallon) per day and stress levels often decrease.
- Meaningful and helpful meetings only. I once had a brilliant senior child welfare administrator who removed all chairs for the meetings she called. Honest. Her view was that when people were standing they got uncomfortable faster and quickly got to the point during the meeting. Most of her meetings lasted 20 minutes or less. There were no “fluff” agenda items in her meetings. Her employees (including me!) grew to love this approach. We all knew that the meeting would be laser-focused, productive, helpful and only as long as absolutely necessary.
- Eat Breakfast! Many of us grew up with parents who said a version of this: “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” I did. A protein-rich breakfast is often essential to mitigating the impact of the day’s stressors.
- Music. If your situation and office environment permit, I urge you to invest in very good, noise-cancelling earphones and play your very favorite music during the day. Among my playlists, I have one called “emotional skyrockets” for those times when I feel especially stressed or weighted down by the work I do. It’s impossible for me to play more than 3 tracks from this playlist and I’m usually much more relaxed.
You may have other stress-busters you find helpful. We’d love to know what they are! Please tell us at info@DownsConsultingGroup.com.