It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of us in different ways. Those who work in the frontlines of the homeless serving sector already work in complex environments without the looming threat of a highly contagious and potentially deadly illness. Now, more than ever, we need these essential workers to be physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually as healthy as possible. To come up with recommendations for how to protect worker well being, I looked to the literature on vicarious trauma within the homeless sector.

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff and Annette Lane conducted a survey with 472 frontline workers investigating concepts such as burnout, compassion fatigue, compassion satisfaction, secondary traumatic stress (STS), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is situated within a work context where those being supported often share stories of intensely traumatic interpersonal experiences as well as structural violence. The goal was to ask:

(1) What are the educational and training profiles of workers in frontline services in the homeless sector?

(2) Is burnout or traumatic stress the most predominant stress factor in this workforce?

(3) Is burnout or STS a greater predictor of PTSD symptoms?

(4) Are there organizational factors that are correlated with burnout, STS or PTSD symptoms?

Without going into the details of the statistical analyses, it is notable that in spite of comparatively low levels of educational preparedness and high levels of staff turnover, burnout or loss of compassion satisfaction were not particularly noteworthy. However, what was notable was a 33% rate of traumatic stress, meaning that outside of a pandemic environment, our workforce is already stressed. These rates outpace other studies of emergency responders!

So, the big question here is how do we promote wellness? Some key factors noted in the article were:

1. Peer support;

2. Managerial support; and

3. Health support

This speaks to the need for both leadership that prioritizes worker wellbeing and institutional policies and supports such as adequate pay, decent working hours, ability to take leave if unwell, and employee assistance supports. For longer term considerations, the authors recommend centering training in a trauma-informed approach as this both supports workers in caring with clients but also invites them to address their own personal trauma histories.

In conclusion, I would recommend that while we acknowledge the heroism of our frontline workers, we must also recognize that this can come at a personal toll. More than ever, those in management roles need to be checking in with their staff and creating both personal an anonymous ways for staff to express their physical and mental health needs. While evidence shows that staff will continue to have compassion even as they accumulate trauma, humane practices in the sector must provide for ways to process this trauma and engage in self-care.

More resources on responding to vicarious trauma can be found on the Homeless Hub here

This is part of a blog series by Abe Oudshoorn, which explores recent research on homelessness, and what it means for the provision of services to prevent or end homelessness. See the full series here