Section 4: Addressing Secondary Trauma
30 Minutes

Lecture Topic TOPIC: ADDRESSING SECONDARY TRAUMA
(30 Minutes, including Learning Activity)

Use SlideUse Slide #1: Addressing Secondary Trauma

Introduction

All professionals involved in sex offender management can probably benefit from learning approaches and strategies to protect themselves from being overwhelmed and traumatized by this work. We are now going to discuss some techniques that you—and your agencies—can employ to mitigate the hardships associated with the work that you do. We will highlight a few approaches that agencies in this field have found helpful in managing secondary trauma and burnout among their employees, as well as a few fun and basic tips that you can try on your own.

Use SlideUse Slide #2: “Trauma Resilient” Employees

Trauma Resilient Employees

The notion of being a “trauma resilient” employee centers around your own individual ability to both recognize when you might be experiencing secondary trauma and how to take the steps necessary to further protect yourself from—or overcome—it. Since we have already discussed the likelihood that at some point in time, you may be impacted very seriously by this work, it is in your best interest to think about what you can do to help ward off the effects of secondary trauma. The concept of being trauma resilient acknowledges that managing sex offenders can be incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing, but also recognizes that there are steps individuals can take to reduce the effects of secondary trauma and burnout. Before you leave today, I hope that you can identify three or more self–care strategies that you can use to become more trauma resilient.

Self–Care Strategies

A 2005 study on community supervision and burnout looked at how supervision officers who have sustained high levels of professional performance and personal health manage the stressors of their work.1 Before I tell you what they were, here are some negative things that people shared about their work. I bet that you all will be able to relate to these: “Most probation officers' lives are kind of chaotic due to the size of our caseloads and the nature of who we have to deal with. It's hard not to reduce everything to self–preservation, routing people without getting in–depth, just to survive. On a personal level, I think most officers stay pretty closed up—like police officers. What do you do—go home and tell your wife or husband about the child abusers and rapists you saw in the office today? It's difficult for officers not to carry their work home, and yet difficult not to be able to talk about it there.”2

“In small communities, we are all interconnected. It brings a different kind of accountability. You can't just go home and forget about it because your neighbors are the people on your caseload or know your clients.”3

“You feel intense pressure because you have such a responsibility to the community. These high–risk offenders pose such a potential threat to public safety that you feel pressure to find the right treatment for this person and to make sure that they’re getting something out of it.”4

A 2005 study on community supervision and burnout looked at how supervision officers who have sustained high levels of professional performance and personal health manage the stressors of their work. Before I tell you what they were, here are some negative things that people shared about their work. I bet that you all will be able to relate to these:

“I can have somebody's file pulled because they are a higher–risk person and I want to focus on his supervision and service needs, and then the 16 stupid things that I shouldn't have to be dealing with at all come walking in the door. At the end of the day, I realize that the one person I really should've been spending time with didn't get any time. That frustrates me because, let's face it, those are the cases that potentially are going to blow up in your face.”

“Most probation officers’ lives are kind of chaotic due to the size of our caseloads and the nature of who we have to deal with. It's hard not to reduce everything to self–preservation, routing people without getting in–depth, just to survive. On a personal level, I think most officers stay pretty closed up—like police officers. What do you do—go home and tell your wife or husband about the child abusers and rapists you saw in the office today? It's difficult for officers not to carry their work home, and yet difficult not to be able to talk about it there.”

“In small communities, we are all interconnected. It brings a different kind of accountability. You can't just go home and forget about it because your neighbors are the people on your caseload or know your clients.”

“You feel intense pressure because you have such a responsibility to the community. These high–risk offenders pose such a potential threat to public safety that you feel pressure to find the right treatment for this person and to make sure that they’re getting something out of it.”

Use SlideUse Slide #3: Characteristics of Trauma Resilient Employees

While many respondents acknowledged the difficulty of the work, they also found some ways to protect themselves from secondary trauma. In fact, those who reported performing well on the job shared many common characteristics, including:

As we will discuss, these traits will likely serve you well in reducing the level of secondary trauma you experience. While it is unlikely that any single thing can completely erase all of the potential for emotional and physical tolls associated with your job, employing some proactive strategies to manage the stress will likely be beneficial to your sense of job satisfaction and overall well–being.

Common Ways to Reduce the Impact of Secondary Trauma

Use SlideUse Slides #4—7: Professional Self–Care Strategies

Let's take a look at some of the examples of these strategies. In the 2005 study described below, each respondent was asked to rate the items in a list of common professional self–care strategies based on each strategy's degree of importance in helping to maintain the individual's physical and mental health and high job performance. The rating options were 1 (not important), 2 (important), or 3 (very important). The average ratings for the 17 items are displayed in the table below.

Professional Self–Care Strategies
Average Rating Stress Reducing Activity
2.9 Cultivating a sense of humor
2.9 Having healthy intimate and family relationships
2.7 Having one or more healthy relationships at work in which I can express emotions related to my work experience
2.7 Having enjoyable hobbies or leisure activities
2.6 Maintaining relationships with professional peers who work outside the criminal justice system
2.6 Having one or more close friendships away from work in which I can express my emotions related to my work experience
2.6 Avoiding or self–monitoring potentially harmful approaches to stress management (e.g., smoking, drinking, risk–taking, cynicism, and negativity)
2.5 Physical self–care (e.g., healthy diet, regular physical checkups, etc.)
2.5 Attending professional training
2.4 Cultivating relationships with other supervision officers who have a positive attitude
2.4 Having alone–time rituals that keep me focused (e.g., meditation, prayer, self–reflection, etc.)
2.4 Getting regular exercise
2.1 Maintaining relationships with supervision officers who work in other offices
1.9 Daily goal–setting and/or self–evaluation at end of the day
1.9 Having one or more professional mentors
1.9 Doing volunteer work unrelated to my job
1.7 Using particular stress management techniques (e.g., biofeedback, meditation, progressive relaxation, etc.)

Trainer QuestionAre there others not on the list that you have found to be helpful coping strategies? What did you think about these strategies? Did any of these resonate with you?

Use SlideUse Slides #8—9: Other Self–Care Ideas

A similar study was funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) that examined stress among supervision officers.6 In the published findings, officers cited a range of methods to cope with work stress. Officers cited physical exercise as their primary coping technique for dealing with work stress. Other methods used to reduce stress included discussing cases with fellow officers, seeking support through spirituality, “venting,” and talking to family members.7

In the NIJ study, several supervision officers also noted that they made a practice of seeking out activities and interactions that reaffirm the existence of goodness and decency as a sort of antidote to the difficult work of managing sex offenders. As one officer commented, “I really push myself to spend time with the good people in the community. If you’re dealing with people who are criminals during your workday, some part of the rest of your time needs to be spent with pro–social people. I think that helps me to keep aware of the fact that most people in the community are decent. To keep from getting cynical and jaded, I have to do things that prove that to myself.”8

Still other officers shared that when they recognize that they’re feeling distressed, they utilize a wide variety of quick decompression rituals that range from short time–out periods (such as getting outside; taking a brief walk; positive self–talk; or emotional self–expression to peers, a supervisor, or family and friends) to more extended breaks from the work environment.9

Yet another study, focusing on rape victim advocates, found that all of the experienced advocates surveyed used some form of self–care strategies to regulate the negative or stressful aspects of working with victims. Many of these strategies echo what supervision officers outlined above, including exercise, taking up hobbies, talking with others, and seeking therapy for themselves.10

It is nice to see that there is some literature from the general criminal justice field that we can draw upon in order to think about self–care strategies for ourselves. In addition to these strategies, some other basic techniques you might find helpful in preventing or managing secondary trauma are described below:11

In mitigating the effects of secondary trauma, however you choose to do so, remember to listen to feedback from colleagues, friends, and family members. They will usually notice the impact of secondary trauma and stress in you before you do yourself. When they bring things to your attention, remember that they care about you!

Obviously, there will be many times when you are not in a position to be able to simply leave the office or have more than a few minutes between clients, but there are still techniques you can use to lessen your stress. Take whatever time—no matter how short—to try one or some of the techniques identified above. Find out what works for you and stick to a plan to continually care for yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally throughout the day. One way to continually remind yourself to do this is to create a self–care list of the strategies that you've learned work best for you and post it prominently in your home, car, or office—somewhere you will regularly see it and be continually reminded of how important it is to take care of yourself.12 Additional tips and strategies on how to take do that, as well as other examples of activities you might include on your self–care list, are described on a handout included with your training materials.

What You Can Do On the Job

Two other basic techniques that you can utilize on the job in order to reduce stress are “compartmentalization” and maintaining clear boundaries.13

Use SlideUse Slides #10—11: Compartmentalization
Compartmentalization

Experienced practitioners advise that to work with sex offenders, it is important to “compartmentalize” oneself to some degree. Offenders have often engaged in unspeakable behavior that has created life–altering trauma for their victims. Their behavior can be so far beyond the boundaries of civilized human interaction that we are naturally appalled. In the words of a seasoned parole officer who has supervised sex offenders for many years, practitioners who work with sex offenders must deal with these offenders “in a nonjudgmental way. You have to temporarily suspend your judgment and shock aside the normal revulsion that we might have for these offenders’ behavior.”14 This may seem counter to an individual's sense of right and wrong, but practitioners emphasize that it is necessary to suspend judgment to some degree in order to allow oneself to function effectively in this line of work. Suspending judgment of the person does not mean losing sight of the fact that the person's behavior is not acceptable, is illegal, and is harmful to victims.

Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

Setting and maintaining boundaries is also a critical component of protecting your professional and personal self when working with sex offenders. Sometimes we may begin to shoulder our clients’ burdens. Although we know that we shouldn't, we will emotionally take our clients home with us, so to speak. Even if we aren't consciously thinking about them, they are often sitting right next to us on the couch as we try to forget about our day. Setting boundaries for ourselves can help to alleviate this.

Use SlideUse Slides #12—13: Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

For example, some sex offenders may attempt to create inappropriate relationships with those who work with them. They may offer flattering comments, attempt to play an empathic role with you, offer gifts, notes, or letters; ask about our personal or family life; or try to establish themselves as “special.” Strategies that some report that they use to combat offenders’ attempts to manipulate their personal and professional boundaries include: not keeping personal items (e.g., photographs, certificates, souvenirs, etc.) in their offices; not divulging information about themselves or their families in the context of a meeting with an offender; declining gifts and correspondence, emphasizing that they are inappropriate; and not letting small behaviors go unaddressed, responding to attempts at manipulation or deceit—no matter how small or insignificant—with such statements as, “this is what you seem to be attempting to do and it is not appropriate because….” In addition, some professionals arrange their offices in such a way as to create a neutral space between their desk and the chair in which offenders sit during office visits.15

One last, very important—one that cannot be emphasized enough—is to try your best to leave your work at work and maintain balance with your personal life. Maintaining work boundaries means you doing things like not taking on more than you can do, working only your assigned hours, and limiting calls from people that aren't totally necessary. When you leave your office for the day, try to leave with it all of the happenings of the day, any stress or frustration you might have felt, and any unfinished tasks that might linger.

Use SlideUse Slide #14: “Trauma Resilient” Agencies

Trauma Resilient Agencies

The effects of secondary trauma do not stop at the individual level. Secondary trauma can also impact our agencies16, manifesting itself in the form of low employee morale and high staff turnover, organizational conflict, and decreased productivity and effectiveness. This doesn't necessarily have to be the case; in fact, just as we discussed the notion of trauma resilient employees earlier, agencies can become trauma resilient as well. Agency leaders and policymakers should work to create an environment that is as supportive as possible and take proactive steps to preserve the emotional and psychological welfare of front line professionals. A failure to do so is likely to result in a reduction of the number of staff who are willing and qualified to do this kind of work.17 The following are strategies that can be used by agencies to become more trauma resilient and to mitigate the hardships associated with supervising sex offenders in the community for their staff.

Use SlideUse Slides #15—16: How Agencies Can Be Trauma Resilient

Trainer QuestionCan you give me an example of an agency or organization that you worked for that took steps to address overall wellness or secondary trauma and burnout? Was it helpful? What additional thoughts do you have about how your agency could be more helpful in mitigating the effects of secondary trauma on you and your colleagues?

Learning ActivityLearning Activity: Next Steps in Responding to Secondary Trauma

Refer to HandoutRefer to Handout: Next Steps in Responding to Secondary Trauma

Being aware of what you need in order to take care of yourself in this work is an important step in responding to secondary trauma. Please turn to the handout entitled “Next Steps in Responding to Secondary Trauma.” Take a moment to reflect on the training and consider your own experience of the impact of your work on you personally and professionally.

I would like each of you to write down a list of self–care strategies—things that you can do to take better care of yourself, and that can help to offset the effects of secondary trauma. List three strategies you can employ in your personal life. Then list three strategies you can use in your professional life. Finally, consider three strategies that would be helpful for your agency to pursue in order to better support you in doing this work. Take about ten minutes to complete this exercise, and then we will have a group discussion.

Of course, working with sex offenders isn't all bad—otherwise you wouldn't be sitting here today, immersed in this important work. Much about the job is immensely rewarding and our work undoubtedly adds value to our profession and to our community. So now, I want you to take five minutes and consider what personal satisfactions you derive as a result of doing this work.

Conclusion

The self–care techniques and strategies that we have discussed in this training for the prevention and management of secondary trauma, whether employed by individuals, the organizations for which they work, or the teams on which they participate, will likely lead to a healthier work environment, a higher and more consistent quality of sex offender management, and more enhanced, healthy lives for everyone.

As professionals who work with sex offenders, we need to be diligent about taking care of ourselves. I am not suggesting that following the steps we have talked about in this section will alleviate all of the stress associated with your job—unfortunately that just is not possible! But failing to take care of yourself is very likely to result in your experiencing heightened effects of secondary trauma. Recognizing—and taking steps to interrupt—the signs and symptoms of secondary trauma in ourselves, our colleagues, and our agencies is critical to our ability to preserve our health and to do our jobs effectively. However, we can't do it alone. We should expect—and encourage—our bosses/supervisors and agencies to implement some of the steps outlined in this section to help to support us as we do this work.

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