Working with harmful sexual behaviour – 2 essential staff support strategies…

Anyone working with troubled young people faces challenges. Such is the nature of the job.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Sandocir

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/Sandocir

This is particularly the case, in my view, when working with troubled sexual behaviour. Managers and organisations have a duty of care for staff in this field.

So what do staff need?…

Discovering that your work is affecting you negatively is quite a shock at first. It took me a while to realise this, about five years actually.

I’d been feeling under the weather for a while – tiredness, disturbed sleep, irritability, etc. nothing new really! But this phase of it had gone on a little too long. Something was different this time around. Something needed to change.

Clinical supervision…

I took my question, somewhat tentatively, to an experienced colleague – a consultant clinical and forensic psychologist. I’m very glad I did! She told me a few home truths that I hadn’t really thought about before:

  • Not many people can work with harmful sexual behaviour (HSB) full time – it’s just too hard and isn’t something many people feel that they can take on. You have to acknowledge the nature of the work  is one of the reasons for this. You’re dealing with the darker side of human behaviour – the abuse of children. Which ever way you cut it, it’s nasty.
  • Of those who do, there is going to be impact – it’s inevitable sooner or later. Progress with such young people requires trust, empathy and consistency. To achieve this you have to get involved. You have to get below the surface. And it’s messy down there. Even for those best suited to it, it has an impact.
  • There are some practical and clinical steps to take – these can help to deal effectively with any impact of the work; both are needed. Neither will work in isolation. there has to be a commitment to tackle things on both planes.

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I was very relieved to hear all this, though a little surprised too – I hadn’t expected such a clear response!

Now I had to set about changing my own practice and influencing the organisation to achieve the proper support needed to work effectively with this client group.

Practical solutions…

Among the practical things I did to mediate the impact of the work were:

  • Annual leave – I spread this out more evenly throughout the year. Long gaps without a break are wearing and best avoided. Even taking the odd long weekend can make a real difference, giving you two shorter working weeks, one either side of the weekend.

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/cokacoka

    Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/cokacoka

  • Non-contact time with young people – I kept one day each week (usually Wednesday) free of clinical appointments. Easier said than done, but worth the effort. There’s always plenty of recording and other paperwork to be done – so keep some diary time free to do it. This has the additional benefit of some guaranteed time without dealing with young people – and the impact of their problems.
  • Organisational support for workers – in a recent piece of research*, the perceived lack of support for workers from the organisation ranked of the highest concern to staff working with HSB. Staff felt supported when their skills were valued and recognised by their organisation – the provision of external and independent clinical supervision was a key way of demonstrating this.

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Clinical solutions…

  • Clinical supervision – the benefits of a regular opportunity to discuss the work cannot be over-emphasised. This is different from case consultation. Clinical supervision is about the interaction between the worker, you and me, and the work itself. Dealing with sexual abuse is a complex and turgid task at the best of times. It requires great concentration, empathy and clinical skill – all of which can be exhausting. Taking this to an independent and skilled listener has huge benefits; not least catharsis!
  • Peer supervision – discussing cases with colleagues can have real benefits to all concerned. Not only do we heighten the likelihood of resolving tricky cases more quickly, but we get to air our questions and concerns with those who understand.

There are no quick fixes to the challenges of working with sexual abuse. But there are some steps we can take that go a long way to mitigating the impact on staff.

In these financially straightened times, one thing that we cannot afford to cut, is staff support…

Your thoughts?

  • How are you dealing with the impact of your work? What could you do to look after yourself better and/or influence your organisation to do the same?

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

 * Almond, T.J. (2014) Working with children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours: exploring impact on practitioners and sources of support. Journal of Sexual Aggression, Vol.20, No.3, 333-353, Abingdon, Taylor & Francis.

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