The 25-29th September 2023 marks the International Week of Happiness at Work, offering employers and employees an opportunity to reflect on their wellbeing and happiness in the workplace.
With the average UK employee spending over 80,000 hours working in their lifetime, looking after our wellbeing at work is really important.
There are a variety of factors in the workplace which might influence how happy or well we feel. For instance, working environment, management and colleagues, progression opportunities, working hours and shift patterns, workload and safety, personal circumstances, and whether a workplace culture aligns with our own values, can all influence our time at work and our overall happiness.
For professionals who work in safeguarding, wellbeing may be further impacted by the emotive nature of the work.
The emotional impact of working in safeguarding
Working in safeguarding can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be challenging.
Responding to safeguarding concerns often involves listening to and handling difficult, stressful, or traumatic circumstances, as well as empathetically engaging with vulnerable children and adults. It’s normal for safeguarding professionals to experience feelings such as upset, shock, or anger, which may go on to impact general wellbeing over time.
It’s also common for those working in safeguarding to experience something called vicarious trauma. This is when exposure to traumatic situations and helping others through challenging circumstances impacts the supporting individual’s own mental health. Vicarious trauma impacts everyone differently, but some common signs include:
- longstanding negative feelings around a person’s victimisation, including self-doubt, pessimism, guilt, or rage
- being unable to switch off outside of work and difficulty maintaining a work-life balance
- dissociation, avoidance, or numbness either at work, home, or both
- feeling very on edge
- difficulty maintaining professional boundaries
- nightmares, panic attacks, or flashbacks
- experiencing stress-related health conditions
For some people, vicarious trauma can significantly impact their mental health, leading to conditions such as chronic stress or burnout.
Self-care for safeguarding professionals
Given the risks of working with trauma, it’s incredibly important that safeguarding professionals take steps to actively look after their mental health and wellbeing. Self-care can help you to cope with the challenging emotions, vicarious trauma, and other work challenges you might encounter in your role, as well as help you feel able to effectively support those you work with.
Self-care can be different for everyone – what works for you might not work for someone else. We’ve put together a few evidence-based self-care tips for you to try:
1. Find your boundaries
As a natural helper, it’s common to want to be there for colleagues or those you are supporting. Safeguarding can also be a very fast-paced environment with lots of emerging changes, and you might feel a pressure to work quickly, or work beyond your hours.
However, it’s important to protect your own time and ensure you only take on a workload that is realistic and within your scope of responsibilities. Saying ‘no’ can feel really hard, especially when you are well intentioned and want to help. But in the long run, having boundaries can help you achieve a better work-life balance and reduce the risk of overwhelm and stress.
2. Identify a support network
Being able to lean on others and having good social networks is one of the greatest ways to help cope when working with trauma. Regularly connecting with colleagues, family, and friends can help you to feel less isolated in any challenges, give you an outlet when needed, and help you to feel valued and confident.
You don’t need a huge network either – just a handful of close contacts can offer a sense of emotional support.
3. Make time to switch off
When working in a time sensitive environment like safeguarding, it can feel impossible to take breaks. However, without time away from work, you run the risk of developing burnout or other mental health illnesses – which usually require much more time off work.
Make sure to schedule regular breaks throughout your day, as well as time away from work to switch off. Continuing with hobbies, socialising, and other daily life activities can help you to disconnect from work and recover from stress. This allows you to protect your wellbeing as well as help you feel more energised and productive at work.
You are more than just your job and ensuring time away from work is crucial to your mental health and sense of self.
4. Regularly ‘check in’ with yourself
There is no set response to trauma or challenging events. Some people might take weeks or months to process a difficult situation, whereas others might feel impacted straight away. Taking time each day to check in with yourself and understand your feelings can help you notice any changes in your thoughts, attitudes, or behaviours.
You might start to see some warning signs or patterns that signify you might be struggling mentally. Perhaps your work has started piling up? Maybe you feel more irritable than normal? Have you stopped speaking with others so much?
Try working with your supervisor (either within your organisation or other trusted organisations) to create a Wellness Action Plan that helps you identify any triggers or warning signs you might have. Regularly using this – or other methods of consciously understanding your emotions, such as journaling - to keep checking in with yourself allows you to implement any coping mechanisms before you get to breaking point.
5. Ask for help
Working in safeguarding can be challenging, but you are not in this alone. There are various ways you can seek support, including:
Your team and colleagues
Debriefing with people who just ‘get it’ can really help you to feel less isolated after a challenging event. Chatting with supportive and understanding colleagues helps to process what has happened, review any misconceptions, work through challenging emotions, and build a network of people who look out for each other. Your organisation also has a responsibility for your wellbeing at work, so it’s important to talk to your supervisor if there is anything in the workplace that is impacting your mental health.
A mental health professional
if you are struggling with your emotions, there is no shame in seeking wellbeing support from a professional. Your organisation might have an Employee Assistance Programme, dedicated wellbeing personnel, or connections with other organisations. Of course, you can also seek support from your GP or other mental health organisations too.
If you are in a crisis and need to talk to someone right now, contact Samaritans, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 116 123, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You should also call 999 if you do not feel that you can keep yourself safe from harm.
PAPYRUS debrief service
PAPYRUS, a suicide prevention charity, runs a debrief service to support professionals who have had an experience with suicide and would like to talk to a trained professional. Call HOPELINE247 on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967, or email email@example.com.
NSPCC Whistleblowing Helpline
Worried about how safeguarding is handled in your organisation but not sure where to turn? We are here to help. The Whistleblowing Advice Line offers free advice and support to professionals concerned about how child protection issues are handled in their workplace. Call 0800 028 0285 or email help@NSPCC.org.uk.
As a safeguarding professional, you play a vital role in keeping young children safe from abuse, and it can be an extremely fulfilling career. However, you can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s essential to take time to look after yourself and seek support when it’s needed.