Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) – It’s Impact on the Child Welfare Workforce and Strategies for Agencies to Address It

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) can mimic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Bride, 2007). These symptoms include having dreams and flashbacks of the traumatic event, avoiding activities or places that might remind someone of the traumatic event, having sleep issues, being irritable, difficulty concentrating, or being hypervigilant. In this video, child welfare staff share how the trauma they experience as part of their job affects them, including physical and emotional reactions and the desire to leave the field.

Unfortunately, experiencing STS is very common among the child welfare workforce. Although child welfare is not the only profession that is exposed to trauma, it may not be as well-known of an occupational hazard as it is for emergency department hospital staff or fire fighters. In fact, social workers tend to have a higher rate of STS (or indirect trauma or compassion fatigue) than police or firefighters, health care professionals, and mental health providers. A survey of 992 child welfare workers and supervisors from across the QIC-WD sites found that more than half reported experiencing STS symptoms in the last 7-days.

STS not only impacts individual workers, but also the agency. Agency culture and climate is shaped by whether or not STS is addressed or even acknowledged as being caused by the work. Some agencies offer training on STS or have Employee Assistance Programs available to help workers build awareness of STS and develop healthy coping strategies. However, this benefit is not available in every jurisdiction or it may not be readily available. Because STS can lead to turnover, which is expensive and negatively impacts the families that agencies are striving to help, agencies are exploring ways to build a more resilient child welfare workforce.

Two QIC-WD sites addressed STS head on, the Nebraska Division of Child and Family Services and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Both agencies used Resilience Alliance (RA) to address topics like optimism, mastery, and collaboration to help manage STS among child welfare staff. In this video staff from those sites share some of the coping strategies they are using such as going for a walk, asking for help, eating better, humor, and seeing the positive side of a situation. The QIC-WD is studying the impact of RA on agencies and turnover over time. Preliminary findings are available for Ohio and Nebraska with additional findings available in 2022.

RA is not the only available strategy to support the child welfare workforce. In Washington, a telework initiative was implemented (pre-pandemic) which gave workers one to two days out of the office. Anecdotal reports indicated that being out of the office, away from the stories of co-workers and children who were removed from the home, helped them better manage STS. Nebraska also piloted Restoring Resiliency Response, an intervention to immediately support workers following a traumatic event, such as a child death or threat to a worker. Ohio also provided coaching for supervisors to help them better talk with staff about the trauma they experience on the job and how they were coping with the stress and pressure of the work. In this video, workers, supervisors, and administrators in Ohio discuss how coaching and supportive supervision strategies helped the agency better manage STS among the workforce. The QIC-WD continues to measure STS among the child welfare workforce and will include analyses of its prevalence and strategies to address it in future reports.