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Improving emotional wellbeing for children’s social care workforce

Research by children’s charity St Christopher’s Fellowship has discovered how therapeutic initiatives can support the wellbeing of professionals working in children’s homes and semi-independent homes.

The project is part of St Christopher’s strategic commitment to improve emotional wellbeing by arming staff with the support, theoretical underpinnings and tools to work in a psychologically-informed way.

Research ran from April 2020 to April 2021 using The Professional Quality of Life Survey (ProQOL), a questionnaire for those working in ‘caring’ roles with people who have experience of trauma. It aimed to identify ways to support positive wellbeing and to determine if stress was a key factor in staff turnover within children’s homes and semi-independent homes.

The need for the research came out of what young people say is important in their lives. Relationships are a vital element of stability for young people in care. To achieve this, the workforce needs support so they can provide consistent care, support and love to the children and young people they work with.

Participants from St Christopher’s children’s homes and semi-independent homes completed quarterly ProQOL surveys, scoring three areas out of 50: compassion satisfaction; risk of burnout; and risk of secondary traumatic stress.

  • Compassion satisfaction refers to how much staff feel satisfied by the caring element of their role. Participants scored 38.8 on average throughout the research period (the average is 37 across caring roles) and St Christopher’s scores across all four quarters were above average for professionals working with people who have experienced trauma.
  • Risk of burnout scored 23.6 (compared to an average of 22 across caring roles). Scores in this area help St Christopher’s therapeutic team to identify risk of burnout early. They then support staff members with self-care and prevent colleagues from leaving due to exhaustion or frustration, two key signs of burnout.
  • Risk of secondary traumatic stress refers to staff taking on the trauma of those they care for and support. Participants’ average score was 21.5 (compared to average of 13 across caring roles). However, the score decreased steadily throughout the year, from 22.5 in June 2020 down to 20.5 in April 2021.

Although ProQOL results are comparable with scores of ‘caring’ roles from other sectors, St Christopher’s urges caution in doing this. “It is difficult to compare St Christopher’s scores with other care professions directly – because our work is with young people, their age means their trauma is ongoing and current,” explains UK Therapeutic Manager Rhiannon Thomas. “Staff experience the first-hand consequences of what young people are going through.”

The research identified a ‘critical point’ score for risk of burnout and risk of secondary traumatic stress. If an individual reached this score and it was not reduced by the next quarter, they would have left their position or be on sick leave.

Introducing individual therapeutic support helped to lower these scores; 80% of high-scoring individuals took up the offer and reduced their scores by the time of the next survey. This led to them remaining in their role, showing how this initiative could tackle staffing issues in the sector.

Another key learning was the benefit of equipping employees with the skills and knowledge to better support young people with trauma. When individuals increase their psychological understanding and take part in more conversations about wellbeing, they become more psychologically resilient; their risk of secondary traumatic stress reduces, as they are aware of what is going on and learn to defend their mental health.

As St Christopher’s has embedded therapeutically-informed reflective practice and training over the last year, there is increased awareness within the workforce of trauma. This could account for the reduction in risk of secondary traumatic stress scores as the research period progressed, despite the additional challenges brought by the pandemic.

Other initiatives introduced based on ProQOL findings are training workshops on trauma, automated processes to alert the therapeutic team to where a staff may have experienced secondary traumatic stress, and support to ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ between shifts.

“Stability is vital for children and young people in care,” says Rhiannon. “Initiatives stemming from this research will help St Christopher’s to provide those all-important consistent relationships for children and young people.”

Read a summary of the research or for more information please get in touch.