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Wellbeing for Service Providers: How Can Organizations Support Staff through the COVID-19 Pandemic?

This post is one in a series on self-care and emotional wellbeing for refugee service providers during the COVID-19 crisis. For tips on how to help your clients cope, see: Helping Refugee Clients Cope During the COVID-19 Crisis and Helping Refugee Children and Parents Cope During the COVID-19 Crisis.

Refugee service providers are used to putting clients first, working long hours, and moving mountains to meet clients’ needs, no matter how difficult. This work is unique: we are entrusted with helping people who have experienced significant hardship and trauma as they rebuild their lives in a new country.  Because our work is unique, our organizations have a unique role in supporting us. 

A colleague recently told me: “I was already burned out, and now THIS…”

When people experience burnout, work can feel harder, take more effort, and be less meaningful. Because many people in this work define themselves by what they do, burnout can also lead to doubt about one’s purpose in life. So what happens when existing burnout meets COVID-19? A crisis like this one can cause a wide range of feelings that may change over time. Some people may have an initial burst of energy followed by feelings of detachment or depression, while others may have persistent feelings being exhausted and overwhelmed. The intensity, frequency, and duration of feelings related to COVID-19 can increase burnout.

While there are many different strategies for preventing and addressing burnout, one crucial element is support on the organizational level. “Duty of care” refers to an employer’s obligations to support the safety, security, health, and wellbeing of its employees. It recognizes that an employer’s greatest asset is its staff, and that when staff are experiencing emotional distress, this impacts client care and work quality. Duty of care is essential in mitigating not only burnout but secondary trauma and other work-related risks. To help address burnout and other risks during this difficult time, agencies can support staff by incorporating the six principles of trauma informed care into their duty of care strategy:

Safety 

  • Emotional safety: Recognize that most staff are under a significant amount of stress. Normalize the expectation that staff may need additional help. Provide information about available mental health options including telemedicine, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and online resources. Encourage staff to minimize news and information consumption during the day. Implement or maintain reflective or clinical supervision to help staff navigate their own triggers and barriers as they work to support clients.
  • Physical safety: It is essential to maintain safety from COVID-19 exposure in the course of work. If staff are conducting home visits, provide hygiene supplies such as masks and gloves, along with clear guidelines about how to properly use them. Develop and follow protocols for staff exposed to COVID-19, with an emphasis on maintaining privacy, providing adequate time off, and appropriately dividing responsibilities among team members until the unwell staff person has recovered.

Trustworthiness and Transparency

  • Be consistent with communication and expectations with staff. If not already in place, implement regular all-staff meetings and one-on-one supervision meetings.
  • Be honest about the organization’s health and future. Everything feels uncertain right now and staff are likely to assume the worst, so wherever possible, maintain transparency.
  • Be transparent about decisions the organization is making. Working remotely creates separation between staff at different levels, which can contribute to perceptions of secrecy about leadership decisions.

Peer Support

  • Support staff in maintaining social connection by encouraging online “water cooler” time during the work day. Consider activities like a virtual coffee break or an online quiz game such as Water Cooler Trivia.
  • Ask staff what ways they would like to connect with their peers. Be open to creative ideas. Would staff be interested in a “no work talk” group chat? Would they like to attend after-hours events like virtual happy hours or virtual movie/trivia/game nights? Would they enjoy an online yoga or meditation class? Give options for those who are interested, but make it easy to opt out without pressure.
  • Remember: Opportunities for social connection should be just that, and not occasions for further work talk.

Collaboration

  • Working from home can remove the natural opportunities for collaboration that come with work in an office. Make staff aware of the online collaboration tools and resources available to them. Some staff may prefer to chat with their colleagues, set up a video or phone call, and others may prefer email. Encourage staff to use the tools that work best for them.
  • Allow opportunities for staff to provide feedback on how the agency is supporting them and what they need. Set up an online feedback mechanism through a platform such as SurveyMonkey, or set aside time during weekly one-on-one discussions.

Empowerment and Choice

  • Work with staff to determine priorities and needs for flexibility. Each staff may require different considerations, depending on their unique circumstances.
  • Encourage staff to set boundaries around their workdays, including when they will be available to clients and colleagues and when they will not. Support staff in communicating their boundaries and expectations to clients and colleagues.

Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

  • Recognize that each person’s experiences and circumstances will impact their work. Provide support and make accommodations where possible. Help staff recognize their own triggers through appropriate supervision. Here are some examples of past or current experiences that might influence staff interactions:
      • Past experience with outbreaks of disease, such as Ebola or Cholera
      • Past experience with food shortages or famine (empty grocery shelves may be triggering)
      • Past experience with traumatic events such as violence, kidnapping, or detention (people in masks may be triggering)
      • Current family needs, such as caring for children as single parents, or caring for older or medically vulnerable family members
      • Immediate threats such as family illness or interpersonal violence
  • Culture impacts communication. We generally understand people better when we can see their facial expressions. Consider cases where video calls might be more helpful than phone calls or emails in ensuring good communication.

Resources

Supporting Staff Working at Home

Understanding Trauma-Informed Care

Understanding Burnout

 

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