Social work and social service work can be very rewarding professions for those who have empathy, want to help others and make a positive contribution to society. Yet, at the same time, both professions can be extremely demanding, with many social workers and social service workers experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue.
LCol Suzanne Bailey, MSW, RSW and Marie-Lucie Bédard, MSW, RSW of the Health Services Group of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) are pioneers in the field of resilience and well-being. The two College members have developed a resilience training workshop for health-care providers in the military, which includes strategies to cope with common stressors.
The College is very pleased to have Suzanne and Marie-Lucie present at our upcoming Educational Forum in Ottawa on November 14. We recently interviewed Suzanne and Marie-Lucie to learn more about their workshop and their thoughts on the importance of resilience and well-being in social work and social service work practice.
Q: We’re pleased to have you both as keynote speakers for the College’s upcoming Educational Forum in Ottawa. Can you tell us what you hope to address in your keynote?
Suzanne: We hope to highlight some of the unique demands that can impact those who work in the helping professions, and offer an opportunity to reflect on how we can reinforce our resilience and take advantage of some of the resources available to us. Some of the same qualities that make us good clinicians and care providers can also put us at risk of being impacted by our work, so it is important to develop an awareness of those tendencies so we can maintain our mental stamina throughout our career.
Q: What led you to seek a career as a social worker in the CAF?
Suzanne: I was already serving in the CAF as a military police officer when my supervisor noticed that I had a tendency to advocate for others and help those who did not have much of a support system. He asked me if I had ever considered being a social work officer, and I did not even know that there were social workers in the military. He gave me the name of the chief social worker at the time. I met with him to find out more about the occupation and what I would need to do to transfer occupations. I then set about obtaining the prerequisites needed to apply to an MSW program. Approximately two years later I was accepted to an MSW program and sponsored by the CAF to go back to school.
Q: What is resilience training and why is it important for social workers and social service workers?
Suzanne: To me, resilience training is all about recognizing how the stress and demands of life affect us and learning what we can do to ensure those demands do not deplete us. Sometimes that might mean taking a break or engaging in a different activity that energizes us; at other times it might mean reaching out for social support or professional help. I think that as social workers and social service workers, we — like many other health-care providers — often have a tendency to put others first and to downplay our own needs. Sometimes we keep pushing ourselves past the point where we need to step back and take a breather because we know others are depending on us. I know I have a tendency to do that, and have to continually remind myself that if I don’t slow down and take a break that eventually I will not be able to function effectively.
Marie: Increasingly, chronic stress has gradually settled into our work environments — it has become part of our lives such that we do not even recognize it anymore. If we let it surround us and do not pay attention to its impact, we are at risk of operating in survival mode. Resilience training allows social workers and social service workers to identify the demands in their environment that affect their mental well-being, helps them quickly recognize the indicators of chronic stress so they can make changes in their environment as well as in their application of resilience strategies that can ultimately lead to growth over the long term.
Q: Suzanne, you have dedicated much of your professional life to improving resiliency and well-being in health-care providers. How has your work changed over the years?
Suzanne: I have been very fortunate to be trusted with this responsibility, and to have built an incredible team to do this work. Over the years we have been able to tailor the training to more closely meet the needs of each group we are working with, and to better address the unique stressors for various occupations or roles. There has also been growing acceptance and recognition of the incredible demands placed on health-care providers, and the impact on the individuals themselves as well as the health-care system. It is encouraging to see many groups working together to address some of the issues and find solutions together.
Q: You have developed a resiliency training workshop. Can you tell us more about this workshop?
Suzanne: The program was developed in collaboration with military and civilian health-care personnel who work in the Department of National Defence to ensure that it meets the needs of those working in a military health-care environment. While it includes the mental health continuum model and the Big 4+ performance skills that are common to all R2MR training across the CAF, it also integrates content on the caregiver personality, chronic stress, compassion fatigue and some of the unique barriers to care for health services personnel.
Currently, the R2MR for Health Services program is divided into two main components: an individual online training that provides the foundational R2MR content; and a full day of classroom training. This hybrid approach allows the in-class component to focus on experiential learning and direct application of resilience skills.
Q: What can social workers and social service workers do to recognize stress and how can they better incorporate resilience into their practice?
Suzanne: It starts with being able to recognize the physiological indicators of stress and how they impact our performance, whether that is during the work day or in our personal lives. Those indicators might be a bit different for each of us, and may also change over time. Maybe we become tired, or impatient or less focused; some of us may start working longer hours and taking on more than we can reasonably handle. Once we recognize what is happening, we can make changes in our environment, such as leaving work on time, saying no to additional commitments, or building in time for physical activity and social interaction. We can also make time for activities that help recharge our batteries, like sports, travel, meditation or reading. We are all different so the activities that replenish our energy will look a bit different for each of us.
Q: Your workshop was designed for health-care providers in the armed services. Do you envision your workshop being adopted outside of the armed forces?
Suzanne: A large proportion of Canadian Forces Health Services personnel are civilian. Civilian and military personnel worked collaboratively in the development of the program and both groups work together in the military organization. In this sense, I have no doubt that the program is easily exportable outside the organization.
We are already collaborating with The Ottawa Hospital, which has adapted portions of the program to their setting while Resident Doctors of Canada and some medical schools have implemented elements of the program. We have also collaborated with Public Safety Canada and the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment to make some of our programming available to first responders across Canada.
Q: What resources are available to social workers and social service workers and others who want to learn more about resiliency and well-being?
Marie: There are some excellent books and online resources for those who are interested in learning more. Social Work Scotland has collected some resources on a website: https://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/reports/resilience-resources. There is even an online course at The Open University that specifically addresses supporting and developing resilience in social work: www.open.edu/openlearn/health-sports-psychology/supporting-and-developing-resilience-social-work/content-section-0
A book that I have found helpful is Developing Resilience for Social Work Practice by Louise Grant and Gail Kinman. Many of Brené Brown’s books also highlight aspects of resilience and well-being.
The College would like to thank LCol Suzanne Bailey and Marie-Lucie Bédard for taking the time to answer our questions.