Supervisors key to managing stress and trauma in child welfare

By Cheryl Rathbun

Chief Clinical Officer

Child welfare workers often face significant stress as they do their work, sometimes resulting in physical and psychological impacts. It’s important that Saint Francis Ministries and organizations like ours offer education and support to help employees manage the challenges inherent in this field.

Multiple studies have shown that the trauma behavioral health workers are exposed to can cause them to leave their jobs. It’s a fact proven in the high turnover numbers in the field of child welfare, where it’s not uncommon to have 30% to 40% turnover.

The trauma faced by employees as they work may be both primary and secondary trauma.

Primary trauma can occur when a child dies or is injured, or in situations when parents or individuals in the court system become angry and yell at employees. Frontline child welfare workers are often attacked verbally and sometimes physically.

Secondary trauma is indirect exposure to trauma and occurs when workers hear stories about the trauma that has occurred in the lifes of the children and families they serve. An effective child welfare worker is going to have characteristics and skills of compassion and listening. The empathic nature that draws workers to this field and their own possible personal adverse experiences result in them being more vulnerable to trauma.

While research has shown a correlation between secondary trauma and increased turnover, it’s important to note that strong supports and supervision can make a difference. Supervisors need to be trained in creating a trauma-informed workplace, which will help them support their co-workers.

According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, “A core function of supervision is to assess worker knowledge, skills, and abilities against the mission, values, and practice standards of the agency, with the goal of strengthening worker performance, resilience, and retention. This includes assessing what additional training, coaching, and mentoring is needed to help workers set and achieve job and career goals and engaging the worker in this process.”

Several research studies point to leadership being pivotal in retaining burned out and stressed-out workers. One study highlights the positive influence transformational leadership can have on mitigating burn out experienced specifically by case managers in child welfare. The study defined burnout in a way that really highlights what can happen over time. “According to the Maslach and Jackson (1981) theory of burnout, prolonged responses to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job can develop into negative attitudes and feelings of incompetence and distant and negative attitudes toward the job and individuals with and for whom they work.”

We often talk about caseload size as being a critical aspect of burnout, however studies have shown that while it has an impact on employees, supervisor support in child welfare is “a pivotal factor in employee retention.”

When a child goes through trauma, the impact of the experience is often related to how the parents responded with protective factors.  Similarly, having a trauma-informed supervisor who provides coaching, mentoring, and other supports has more impact with how employees are affected by their work.


Picture of Beth Cormack
Beth Cormack

Beth is the project manager for the Saint Francis Ministries Marketing and Communications team.

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