My story of working the ‘front-lines’; in solidarity with caregivers facing violence, abuse, trauma, and more in the workplace.
Here is a picture of me in 2013 right as first ventured into ‘the front-lines’ as a Youth and Family Counsellor at Wood’s Homes.
If you are reading this, you might know of Wood’s Homes through working with me, by knowing someone who works or is a client there, or by way of recent, and very tragic headline news whereby a caseworker, Deborah Onwu, was stabbed to death by a teenage boy.
I didn’t know Deborah, though I know many folks who did, and considering my own story and previous push to improve working conditions, prevent violence, and support worker’s health, it’s safe to say this news hit close to home.
I share my story, not because it is particularly unique, but because I wish to spread awareness about the realities of front-line youth work, along with providing some insight into how important self-care and stress management was to my own abilities in working in a high-stress, shift work based, and crisis prone work environment.
At that of this photo, I had been a long time enthusiast for health and personal development and a personal trainer of 6 years. Back then, I had never really known high levels of stress and felt that regular fitness, good nutrition, some basic sleep principals, and goal setting were keys to personal growth, happiness, and vitality. Though, one thing kept coming up in my clientele that I couldn’t relate to or effectively help my clients with, and that was regarding issues around mental health and greater life stressors like grief, abuse, addiction, trauma, separation, burnout, depression, anxiety, and more.
So, after having realized that I wanted to experience something new and gain education in mental health, I took the recommendation of a friend and applied to be a front line youth Counsellor. “If you wanna learn about mental health, why not crawl into the belly of the beast?” they said, “Wood’s Homes is always lookin for staff and someone with your experience might be seen as qualified for the role.”
Me, not having any clue as to what the work would be like, liked the idea of working with youth, after all, a lot of the philosophy I worked with (and still do to this day) was based in the idea of taking time to take life less seriously, breaking free in the moment, and finding ways to play, move, breathe, and explore. Certainly kids would be into that sort of stuff.. right?
So, I applied and got accepted on the condition of first going in for a shadow shift in a youth program that housed up to 8 youth who struggle with addiction, violence, and a tendency towards running (living life in the streets). The program had funding for up to 10 staff, was 24hr supervision, and required 12hr shifts on 4 day rotations.
That’s when I realized that I was entering a part of society that many do not see in their regular life.
I entered a 2 story cottage that was locked from the outside only, meaning that anyone could leave, but to get in, had to have a key (employees) or be let in (youth). I was given a short tour and swiftly brought into the staff room, boxed in with scratched and worn plexiglass windows so supervisions could occur while being tucked away safely with valuables, cash, computer, cutlery, etc. By then I had already been greeted with a couple friendly nods and hellos from the youth, and also some real expletives from a couple youth who targeted me for my looks. Then as I was sitting with the then team leader of the program in the office, a young boy of 14yrs old starts banging loudly on the plexiglass shouting repeatedly at the female team leader ‘Mooo, Mooo! F$&k you Cow! Mooo! Come out here so I can l slit your throat you cow!”
Me being new to this, watched silently and waited for the team lead to take the lead. She ignored him and smiled at me, “He’s upset cause he lost some privileges today for leaving the program without permission, though this is pretty normal behavior compared to the type of crisis that can occur here. He knows better and just wants my attention so we will continue our meeting, just don’t respond to him at all.” She went on to explain protocol, the daily responsibilities of staff, and filled me in on the current youth in the program. I listened intently and could only but feel compassion and a bit of confusion for what to expect in this role, but I was confident and determined to challenge myself and felt that I could learn a lot from this.
Later in the conversation, I had learned that that same boy’s brother had his life saved by a staff member that same winter, just one month earlier. He had been left behind by his ‘friend’s while drinking excessively and was found unconscious laying in the snow. I also learned that those same brothers had been in over 40 different ‘placements’ within the system in their lives, most of which they spent apart from one another. That means they had a tendency to last an average of 6 months before they found a way to ‘breakdown’ their placement in some way shape or form, via excessive violence, drug abuse, running, self-harm, or plain refusal to commit to treatment. Their story, in itself to me represents what much of the system looks like when youth get ‘stuck’ in the system, and for every one of them, are 3 more willing and hopeful youth workers ready to take them into their care.
And to this point, my story is not unique. The hard reality is that there are at least 70,000 youth in care at any given point across Canada. They come from all types of families across all ethnicities. From upper class suburban families to impoverished neighbourhoods, reservations, and refugee camps; all in some way or another each of these youth has to first face hardship in the home, or the lack thereof, only to then be put into the care or permanent custody of strangers.
Imagine, despite all your good intentions, what it would be like to relate to, connect with, build trust with, mentor, or be the authority over youth like this?
I could see pretty clearly, it would be a thankless role, full of challenges. And for the workers I met who had committed their lives to this work, I was inspired by their humility and fortitude. I wanted to jump in to learn from them. With both eyes wide opened, I accepted a position in that program, and thus started my 3.5yr journey into this line of work.
And you bet I learned about mental health. In short order, I learned about anxiety, trauma, depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and burnout; these just being the lessons I learned in being a staff member. You see, turnover for front-line work in the 4yrs leading up to then was at 41%, with burnout and “not being a good fit” being at the top of the reasons. Now, across the board this type of work is typically a stepping stone for experience in social work as well, which contributes to higher than normal turnover in general. However, what I quickly realized is that ALL of my teammates had experienced some sort of physical or emotional abuse, during their time there whether it was a few months, or a few years. Youth and staff were turning over quickly, and our program went through 4 Team Leaders in 1 year. Safe to say, although the folks are generally extremely hard working and find purpose in their work, the work environment and lifestyle that comes along with the job often lead to periods of hopelessness and burnout for the youth and the workers.
A few months in and I too started to struggle with my ability to manage the stress well. My quality of sleep deteriorated. On work days, time and energy to run errands, exercise or make good meals slipped away. I started to reach for vices to cope with stress, fatigue and anxiety. I noticed I felt less agile, aches and pains starting to develop in my body, I had less motivation to exercise and eat well. My low energy lead to relying on things like movies and surfing the internet to pass the time, and I found I started to lose belief that I could really make any difference in the work I was doing.
Then came a stark realization that the nature of the work in itself wasn’t going to change. It, like most forms of caregiving, has been and will remain, by nature, a highly complex mix of emotional, physical, and intellectual type of work complete with the hazards of working with at risk populations. What could change however, were:
My own habits in managing and reacting to stress
My own ability to manage aspects of the surrounding work environment while I was there.
So, I decided that I wasn’t going to become another statistic of burnout. I would search high and low for ways to look after myself and contribute the best I could to the health of the youth and my colleagues. Not an easy feat as you could imagine. Problem was, I hadn’t really experienced the side effects of a high-stress, shift-work, and crisis-based work environment, so I had to learn as I went. I often find myself struggling with fatigue, poor sleep, irregular appetite, loss of motivation, and even hopelessness before I could determine how to begin managing or preventing these issues. The truth is, my ‘go-to’s’ of exercise, nutrition and positive thinking weren’t enough to deal with times new level of stress. At times I didn’t know if I could even manage to get by, though I kept finding myself thinking that there must be a way to regulate my stress, to manage my sleep, appetite, and even aches and pains in a way that was conducive to the work environment.
And through many sleepless nights, facing my own experiences with violence, trauma, and anxiety, trial and error, and consulting with some of the veteran colleagues, I started to find ways to hack into my biology and surroundings. I started finding ways to effectively be able to destress, refresh, and energize often within minutes or less throughout the day. I hadn’t ever realized just how intelligent and resilient the body was until I started to consciously interact with it’s innate ability to regulate stress. When given the right set of cues it is truly amazing how swiftly one can change the physical makeup of they bodies, mindset, circadian rhythms, and more. All the while I was finding simple and unobtrusive ways to infuse my days with:
- More movement
- Self massage
- Fresh air
- Deeper breaths
- Better lighting
- More ergonomic use of workstations and vehicles
- Better breaks
- Better hydration
- More conscious efforts to connect with myself, colleagues, and loved ones…
- …and more.
The actions were quite simple and the results were almost immediate, though if I didn’t commit to practicing them as habits, the results would vary in direct correlation. As I began to engrain these actions as regular, daily habits major improvements to my well-being followed:
- My quality of sleep returned
- I could adjust my sleep schedule with ease
- I could transition from high stress situations into feeling rested and relaxed on the go.
- I began to regain creative motivation to do better work.
- People started asking how I stayed so calm and present in my work.
- My appetite rebalanced and I got over cravings for junk.
- Mid-day slumps in energy became shorter and less frequent, I began to sometimes go weeks without feeling fatigued.
- I would feel my work leave me behind, and return home feeling calm and present.
I emphatically started sharing about my results and insights with my team as I saw how they too were struggling. They too started to see results for their own unique symptoms of stress. I also could see how we could effectively benefit the youth by taking action towards our own self-care while managing the environment with this in mind.
It wasn’t long before people started to take notice and I was invited into the union that represents most of the workers at Wood’s, then into health and safety training, regional and provincial committee and more.
I spent the next 2.5yrs working towards gaining a more diverse understanding of the work, stepped down from full-time commitment to one program, and into Casual work (though sometimes worked more than full-time hours) so that I could experience the varying types of programs, group homes, and age groups. It was clearly evident that the issues I struggled with were not exclusive to ‘the most stressful’ programs or to working with certain age groups of youth. I could see the effects of stress and burnout regardless of work environment, from front-line to team leads, to managers and upper management.
I also started to gain insight into various sectors through the training I was taking within the union and health and safety committee. It started to seem that no matter where I went, workers across industries had their own way of relating. Construction, health care, education, road workers, administration, executives, you name it; stress, fatigue, slumps in energy, aches and pains, burnout and turnover were all relevant symptoms of plain old hard work, left unchecked and un-resolved, made manifest in the form of chronic stress.
By the time mid 2015 came around, I began to see how there were worker’s everywhere that could benefit from more education in workplace self-care and healthy workspace design. I had a growing interest from other people and their employers and I could see that there was a long road ahead to making lasting change from within Wood’s Homes; not to mention many barriers such as lack of funding, legislation, differing opinions, and priorities. Therefore, I taught what I could to those who were asking for it, grew a large interest from people working across industry, and by mid 2016 felt my focus shifting to a point that I felt it appropriate to step out of counselling and into my own work in employee health and wellness.
The rest is a story for another time.
Thanks for taking the time to learn a little more about me, I would be honoured to hear your thoughts or how you can relate.