I’ve seen a lot in my 30 plus years as a social worker in many different settings, and I carry some scars from this work. However, most of my psychological trauma from paid work has come from how organisations have treated me and my fellow workers. In 2013 when I completed my PhD on workers’ experience of job stress in the community services sector in Victoria1, there was clear evidence of psychological damage to workers from their organisations. My recent experiences suggest that things have worsened. My PhD was entitled ‘Feeling the Heat’ due to the all too common adage that if it’s too hot in the kitchen, get out – as if the problem is with the worker, not the culture, the workloads and the power imbalance between workers and their organisations. This paper is called ‘Cold Indifference’ because that is how I have experienced my latest episode of work and what I have observed over recent years.
I held a part time position in a trial service in an area connected to family abuse. None of the protocols developed for family violence work aimed at keeping clients and workers physically and psychologically safe, were in place. Nor was the organisation interested in hearing from me – the worker on the ground – about what was doable or what was needed to keep me and my clients safe. My analogy for my role was the lonely Sherpa climbing up the treacherous mountain to single-handedly assist the injured client down to base camp, only to go straight back up to do it all again. I did learn from working with clients and developed ways to be of maximum benefit to them. I read extensively on my days off, reflected often on my practice, consulted outside agencies and their workers, and I worked alongside the client to make them safer in, if not completely eradicate, the horrific situations they were experiencing.
The clients were facing physical, financial and psychological abuse; some were at risk of losing their homes, most had co morbidities, they came from many cultural communities and some were under very serious physical threat. Was I adequately de-briefed, provided regular clinical and peer support, surrounded by a team and my safety kept in focus? Sadly, and emphatically no, no, no and no. These requirements for workers are part of the protocols developed by Domestic Violence Victoria2 in response to the occupational health and safety obligations on organisations. Nine months into my role and after much bleating from me, my organisation did agree to a clinical supervision session every three weeks. For me this was too little, too late. As a lone worker with a manager in another location (and not from the team that included other family violence workers) I also had very limited opportunities for more informal debriefing.
New referrals came in regularly and I was expected to make contact within five working days. To do this in a two day a week job would have meant closing off clients who still needed support and assistance. It was suggested that the number of sessions should be limited and I was told to ‘refer clients on’; ‘to where?’ I wanted to shout. I was also more subtly encouraged to close off clients; for example I was queried on the length of time I spent with individuals, with no acknowledgment that these individuals were extremely distressed and sometimes in ongoing and credible danger. I was also subject to comments such as “not all your clients are in crisis” and “we are all busy”, that undermined my professional judgement and denied the reality of my work.
No-one wanted to hear about the realities of my role: the number of clients that passed through the service seemed to be more important than whether they were helped or what the negative impacts were on me.
My physical safety didn’t seem important to the organisation either. I was pressured from the outset to meet clients in their homes – the very homes where many of the potential perpetrators of violence lived. This practice was not only unsafe for me; it was unsafe for the client. Work Safe Victoria’s information brochure ‘Working Alone’3 states that ‘some jobs present such a high level of risk that workers should not be required to do the work alone. Occupations where violence has occurred before or where no information is available fall into this category’. The longer I was in the role the more I questioned this expectation: ‘are they nuts wanting me to go on home visits’. I tried to challenge this serious aspect of my role, but was left feeling powerless as no-one was listening. In fact one response from my manager, early in the piece was that “maybe you are not cut out for the job”, which did work to silence me for quite a while.
This lack of concern for my safety (and that of the client) was distressing. I am an experienced, well trained and skilled social worker/clinician and I have been actively involved in occupational health and safety at many workplaces as a staff representative and/or union delegate. I therefore had the confidence to manage this situation by ignoring the pressure to do home visits and met clients at my workplace. How much harder would that be, and how much more distressing for a less experienced worker?
Work Safe Victoria documentation also states that organisations should consider providing ‘communication equipment to workers that is tested and maintained (e.g. duress alarms)’4. Not only was I not offered a duress alarm, I discovered – accidently and not long before I left – that other workers with whom I shared an office, and who were at much less risk, were directed to take a duress alarm to all home visits. I consider this one of the major failures in the duty of care to me from my organisation. This has left me angry and extremely disappointed.
Until the end I believe I demonstrated good faith; I cared for the clients and I wanted the program to succeed. I presented a paper to my manager on my ‘Sherpa experience’ with recommendations to make the work effective for the client and doable for the worker. I noted that this was the pivotal time for an honest evaluation as funding and the continuation of the program, were in the process of renewal. However they were not listening: the extension of the funding appeared to be all that mattered – I was collateral damage and expendable. This ‘collusion’ between organisations and their funding bodies allows programs to continue that are demonstrably inadequate for the physical and psychological health of workers.
Systemic poor funding and competitive tendering result in agencies and their managers extracting the maximum out of their human resources, even if this is damaging and untenable for the worker. It can be impossible to speak up when you have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed and there are plenty more workers looking for positions. In today’s industrial landscape with ever more casual and contractual workers, and lower levels of unionism, the power is in the hands of employers. Even workers with permanent positions are reticent to speak up as they generally need a reference.
In the end it felt like I stood toe to toe in a boxing ring with my managers, Human Resource managers and in the final rounds, at my request, the CEO. They pushed for me to leave early but gave two totally contradictory explanations for this. The first appeared to have no basis in fact and when I questioned this, the story changed to concern for me. Given the callous and uncaring treatment I had received until then, and the fact that the first explanation had shown no regard for my wellbeing, I found this both unbelievable and unconscionable. The inconsistencies were never clarified – I felt that the managers had closed ranks and I was being shut down without due process.
This brings to mind the concept of parallel processes: ‘the dynamics that arise in the lives and relationships of clients [that] play out within the teams and services working with those client groups’5. It is the complex interaction between clients, staff and organisations and can lead to systems that ‘frequently replicate the very experiences that have proven to be so toxic for the people we are supposed to treat’6. In my case this included isolation, lack of power, having my concerns dismissed and in the final stages being given contradictory and inconsistent information. This sorry saga has left me in psychological trauma: my managers have all ‘moved on’ and I am left to deal with the confusion, anger and psychological damage.
I invite other workers with similar stories to contact me: briefly tell me how it is for you? what strategies have you used to survive? What can we do to improve the lot of workers in this sector? Let me know if you are interested in banding together and maybe something will grow from this paper. If nothing else from reading my article though, I encourage you to join your union as ‘united we stand and divided we fall’.
Beckwith, Joan: (2010) Swimming with Sharks, Sid Harta Publishers, Glen Waverley
Benstead, Ursula: (2011) ‘The Shark Cage: the use of metaphor with women who have experienced abuse’ Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp 70-76