MOUNT VERNON – Social work is about helping those who need it most. The associated stress and emotional exhaustion, however, often lead to a quick exit from the job.
Up to 50% of child care workers are at risk of developing secondary traumatic stress (STS) associated with working with traumatized children. Studies show that STS is a reliable predictor of the employee leaving the job.
Research shows that the average state has a turnover rate of 14-22% for social workers and 20% for supervisors. High turnover rates adversely affect the children and families they seek to help as they hinder the development of stable relationships that vulnerable youth need.
Knox County is not immune to the high turnover and burnout associated with working with children and families. Because of this, the Knox County’s Labor and Family Services Department has implemented a two-pronged approach – one immediate and one more in-depth – to addressing these issues and keeping their employees complete.
Employee assistance program
An employee assistance program through LifeWorks provides KCJFS employees with immediate assistance when faced with any mental health or other challenge. It is offered free of charge to employees and their families.
Individuals can phone or video chat on various topics up to five times a year with a network of experts – many of whom have masters degrees -. Meetings are confidential; KCJFS doesn’t know who is using the service or what the discussion is about.
If anyone needs services beyond the five sessions, LifeWorks will connect them to someone on site. Local services are paid for by insurance or self-payment.
“We’re offering employees to try and keep them full,” said Courtney Lower, KCJFS HR administrator. “This is a passion project of mine.
“I think this is important because of the type of work our staff – especially case workers – do in children’s homes,” she continued. “You see a lot of difficult things. They have to deal with their emotions and take care of childcare, child benefits and people who seek public support whenever people are not having their best days. They absorb the emotions that the customer is presenting. The ability to deal with this kind of stress and trauma that comes into our lives was very important to me to be able to deal with. “
When you add the potential need for crisis intervention and trauma response, Lower said it is even more important that staff have professional support.
“We hope this never happens, but the fact that we have trained staff to turn to when we have a particularly difficult child abuse or death case is important,” she said. “Without an EAP, we have to strive to get these services in place.
“It might be an insurance policy. If necessary, we have a tool in our tool box, ”she added.
Professional help is not limited to just mental health and coping with secondary trauma. LifeWorks also provides financial, legal, fitness, relationship, elderly care, and nutritional support.
“Employees don’t drop their personal lives when they come to work,” Lower said. “They deal with financial problems, legal problems and dependent care for their parents. Here, too, the EAP can help. It takes some of the strain off so they don’t feel so overwhelmed. “
Spouses and loved ones can also access the network. Lower said this was important because family issues could distract employees’ attention and energy.
“As a member of this household, you are also concerned about the things that the employee is,” Lower said. “If I am able to have this tool that the spouse can use, it can take the burden off the employee.”
Lower implemented the program on March 1, 2020. Two weeks later, COVID-19 arrived. Employees began working from home, so program information was distributed virtually and via email.
“I think these factors may not start the program as we would have liked,” Lower said. “Watching a PowerPoint presentation or having a person talk about it is different than reading about it.
“We’ll have more intentions this year,” she added. “The timing last year really got us down.”
Knox County JFS’s longer-term approach to reducing sales and stress includes a pilot program designed to teach employees self-care and supervisors how to be supported by coaching.
A survey of 588 Ohio Children’s Fund employees conducted by the National Quality Improvement Center for Workforce Development (QIC-WD) found that JFS’s organizational culture and climate were above average in terms of rigidity and resistance and below average in terms of engagement. In addition, 53% of those surveyed had increased STS symptoms.
Further analysis showed that the root cause was related to surveillance. In response to the focus groups conducted by QIC-WED, the supervisors said they wanted more skills in training, feedback and support. more time for supportive oversight, not just casework; and more management support to assist case workers.
The focus groups also showed that front-line workers need to develop stronger coping skills, take emotions out of their work, and learn how to self-regulate emotions and maintain healthy boundaries for self-sufficiency.
The Ohio Department of Job & Family Services has partnered with QIC-WD as one of eight national project sites to test child welfare interventions. In the fall of 2018, ODJFS selected Knox and eight other counties to develop and direct Coach Ohio, a supportive supervision intervention program.
“Sales at childcare agencies are typically up to six times the national average for all industries,” said Bret Crow, director of communications at ODJFS, via email. “By the time we applied to participate in the four-year research study by the Quality Improvement Center for Personnel Development, the opioid epidemic had further increased sales. And no one had thought about the effects of a pandemic. “
Coach Ohio combines two intervention methods:
–Resiliance Alliance (RA), which helps employees develop skills and behaviors that reduce sales, minimize the impact of STS, and improve their wellbeing
– Coaching, which gives managers the ability to listen, ask questions, provide feedback and hold employees accountable
Said training includes 24 weeks of RA groups for child services administrators, middle managers and clerks. In between RA sessions, supervisors use coaching to encourage staff to practice their RA skills.
“The RA groups focus on self-care, such as problem solving and strategies for coping with secondary trauma,” she said. “When supervisors have their weekly [staff] In meetings they will talk about RA ideas and implementation strategies and how to deal with things without being overwhelmed. “
Regarding supervisor training, Lower said, “It’s a coaching mindset, rather than just giving directions.”
As with practically anything, Lower said COVID-19 really threw a wrench into the program.
“Having to do remote monitoring … is different from sitting in a room and talking to a person,” she said. “We had to make adjustments during operation.”
“Coach Ohio recognizes that supervisors can play a key role in managing secondary trauma and managing stress,” said Crow of ODJFS. “The Knox County’s JFS team have been hardworking and have partners invested in this work. They strive to find cost-effective ways of supporting employee wellbeing in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for the most vulnerable families and children in Knox County. We were fortunate to have them as a partner for this project. “
Are the strategies working?
So far, 2.4% of JFS employees have accessed EAP support. While this isn’t a large number, Lower said the volunteer feedback has been positive.
“You won’t see a return on investment like you would another money maker,” she said. “The return on investment will be linked to the satisfaction, loyalty and commitment of the employees.
“We hope to see this return over time.”
More than a year after the Coach Ohio program began, Knox and the other eight counties are currently in the evaluation process.
“We don’t have statistics yet because the evaluation is ongoing,” said Crow. “Over the next year, the evaluation team will continue to collect and analyze data, including examining the effects of COVID-19 on employee perception and behavior, and their focus on retention and resilience.”
However, early reports from participants show that those who have participated in RA have learned to better cope with the stresses of the job, to be more optimistic, and to regulate the trauma they face.
“While we expect the formal assessment to be informative, the intervention districts reported that the programs have been helpful and beneficial to the workforce and that the feedback from participating case workers has been positive,” said Crow.
“We are excited to see the data and the results from it,” Lower said, adding that the program is not limited to childcare. “There is no reason why we cannot incorporate this into all of our units as there is stress in every aspect of their work. Having another tool in our toolbox to help relieve stress is a great thing. “
Crow said that after the Coach Ohio study completes, the national team will assess the impact on case workers’ coping skills, employee feeling of social support, job satisfaction, sales, engagement, and outcomes for children.
“The results could have an impact on all 88 Ohio counties as well as the nation,” he said. “And best of all, if we can learn to better support case workers, we can better support children and families.”
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