Self Care for Shelter Staff

Why Self Care?

“Research has shown that parents of children with mental illnesses are themselves at risk of developing mental health issues and report a range of negative emotions including self-blame, anger, and frustration (Arbuthnott & Lewis, 2015).”

“Without adequate care, the mental health professional is equally at risk of “burnout, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue,” says Ashley Davis Bush (2015). And while the warning is stark, it is of genuine concern for anyone whose focus is others’ wellbeing.”

“With between  21% and 67% of mental health workers experiencing occupational burnout, it is paramount that therapists, psychologists, and counselors take care of themselves while looking after others’ needs (Delgadillo et al., 2018).”

Not looking after ourselves could be an act of selfishness. If we burn out, we will not be available to help anyone.


  • Self-respect encompasses a multitude of ideals, but it comes down to being the kind of person you are satisfied with showing the world and being someone that you and the people you care about are proud of.
  • Self-respect is about having a sense of honor and dignity about yourself, your choices, and your life.
  • It is about treating others well and knowing that by doing so, you feel good about yourself.
  • Self-respect is knowing that not everyone will treat you well and choosing to respect everyone nonetheless, but still knowing that you deserve to be surrounded by great people.
  • Having respect for yourself is vital in maintaining a positive self-image by allowing yourself to feel confident in who you are and content with the person you are.

Ask Yourself

  • Do you feel responsible for other people–their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being and destiny?
  • Do you feel compelled to help people solve their problems or by trying to take care of their feelings?
  • Do you find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others than about injustices done to you?
  • Do you feel safest and most comfortable when you are giving to others?
  • Do you feel insecure and guilty when someone gives to you?
  • Do you feel empty, bored and worthless if you don’t have someone else to take care of, a problem to solve, or a crisis to deal with?
  • Are you often unable to stop talking, thinking and worrying about other people and their problems?
  • Do you lose interest in your own life when you are in love?
  • Do you stay in relationships that don’t work and tolerate abuse in order to keep people loving you?
  • Do you leave bad relationships only to form new ones that don’t work, either?

Characteristics of Codependency

  • My good feelings about who I am stem from being liked by you
  • My good feelings about who I am stem from receiving approval from you
  • Your struggle affects my serenity. My mental attention focuses on solving your problems/relieving your pain
  • My mental attention is focused on you
  • My mental attention is focused on protecting you
  • My mental attention is focused on manipulating you to do it my way
  • My self-esteem is bolstered by solving your problems
  • My self-esteem is bolstered by relieving your pain
  • My own hobbies/interests are put to one side

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services, and other allied professions, due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence. This work-related trauma exposure can occur from such experiences as listening to individual clients recount their victimization; looking at videos of exploited children; reviewing case files; hearing about or responding to the aftermath of violence and other traumatic events day after day; and responding to mass violence incidents that have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.

While individuals respond to vicarious trauma in a number of ways, a change in their world-view is considered inevitable—people can either become more cynical or fearful, or they can become more appreciative of what they have, or both. Responses to vicarious trauma can be negative, neutral, or positive; can change over time; and can vary from individual to individual, particularly with prolonged exposure.

Affects: • Memory • Feelings • World Views • Sense of Safety • Self-Efficacy

Risk Factors

  • Anyone working with survivors of trauma and violence is at risk of being negatively impacted by the varied effects of vicarious trauma. Factors that may make employees or volunteers more vulnerable to this occupational risk include:
  • Prior traumatic experiences
  • Social isolation; both on and off the job
  • A tendency to avoid feelings, withdraw, or assign blame to others in stressful situations
  • Difficulty expressing feelings
  • Lack of preparation, orientation, training, and supervision in their jobs
  • Being newer employees and less experienced at their jobs
  • Constant and intense exposure to trauma with little or no variation in work tasks
  • Lack of an effective and supportive process for discussing traumatic content of the work

Effects of Vicarious Trauma

Each individual may experience the effects of vicarious trauma differently. Some of the potential negative reactions include:

  •  Difficulty managing emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb or shut down
  • Fatigue, sleepiness, or difficulty falling asleep
  • Physical problems or complaints, such as aches, pains, and decreased resistance to illness
  • Being easily distracted, which can increase one’s risk of accidents
  • Loss of a sense of meaning in life and/or feeling hopeless about the future
  • Relationship problems: withdrawing from friends and family, increased interpersonal conflicts, avoiding intimacy
  • Feeling vulnerable or worrying excessively about potential dangers in the world and loved ones’ safety
  • Increased irritability; aggressive, explosive, or violent outbursts and behavior
  • Destructive coping or addictive behaviors: over/under eating, substance abuse, gambling, taking undue risks in sports or driving
  • Lack of or decreased participation in activities that used to be enjoyable
  • Avoiding work and interactions with clients or constituents
  • A combination of symptoms that comprise a diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Compassion Fatigue

  • Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others.
  • Often described as the negative cost of caring.
  • It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress.
  • Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by another person.
  • It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”

May Cause Disruption:

  • Sense of meaning
  • Sense of connection
  • Identity
  • Worldview
  • Beliefs about self and others
  • Psychological needs
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Sensory memory

Possible Negative Outcomes:

  • Increased use of sick time
  • Detachment from others
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Substance abuse
  • Feel loss of control
  • Life dissatisfaction
  • Less predictable

What is Burnout?

The World Health Organization (2019) states:  “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

Reduced professional efficacy.”

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

First Stage: Honeymoon

When we undertake a new task, we often start by experiencing high job satisfaction, commitment, energy, and creativity. This is especially true of a new job role, or the beginnings of a business venture.

In this first phase of burnout, we may begin to experience predicted stresses of the initiative you’re undertaking, so it’s important to start implementing positive coping strategies.  Common symptoms include:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Readily accepting responsibility
  • Sustained energy levels
  • Unbridled optimism
  • Commitment to the job at hand
  • Compulsion to prove oneself
  • Free-flowing creativity
  • High productivity levels

Second Stage: Onset of Stress

The second stage of burnout begins with an awareness of some days being more difficult than others. You may find your optimism waning, as well as notice common stress symptoms affecting you physically, mentally, or emotionally.  Some of the symptoms are:

  • High blood pressure
  • Inability to focus
  • Irritability
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Lack of sleep or reduced sleep quality
  • Lack of social interaction
  • Lower productivity
  • Unusual heart rhythms
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of decision making
  • Change in appetite or diet
  • Fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • General neglect of personal needs
  • Grinding your teeth at night
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations

Stage Three: Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is a marked change in your stress levels, going from motivation, to experiencing stress on an incredibly frequent basis. You may also experience more intense symptoms than those of stage two.  Some common symptoms are:

  • Anger or aggressive behaviour
  • Missed work deadlines and/or targets
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings
  • Physical illness
  • Procrastination at work and at home
  • Repeated lateness for work
  • Resentfulness
  • Social withdrawal from friends and/or family
  • Uptake of escapist activities
  • Lack of hobbies
  • Apathy
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Cynical attitude
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Denial of problems at work or at home
  • Feeling threatened or panicked
  • Feeling pressured or out of control
  • Increased alcohol/drug consumption
  • Increased caffeine consumption

Stage Four: Burnout

Entering stage four is burnout itself, where symptoms become critical. Continuing as normal is often not possible in this state as it becomes increasingly difficult to cope. We all have our own unique limits of tolerance, and it is key that you seek intervention at this stage.  Symptoms:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Chronic headaches
  • Chronic stomach or bowel problems
  • Complete neglect of personal needs
  • Continuation or increase in escapist activities
  • Desire to “drop out” of society
  • Desire to move away from work or friends/family
  • Development of an escapist mentality
  • Feeling empty inside
  • Obsession over problems at work or in life
  • Pessimistic outlook on work and life
  • Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase
  • Self-doubt
  • Social isolation

Stage Five: Habitual Burnout

The final stage of burnout is habitual burnout. This means that the symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you are likely to experience a significant ongoing mental, physical or emotional problem, as opposed to occasionally experiencing stress or burnout.  Common symptoms include:

  • Chronic sadness
  • Depression
  • Burnout syndrome
  • Chronic mental fatigue
  • Chronic physical fatigue

How Coworkers Can Help

If you believe a co-worker might be experiencing negative reactions to vicarious trauma, consider:

  • Reaching out and talking to them individually about the impact of the work
  • Helping them establish a consistent work-to-home transition that creates an important boundary and safe place outside the workplace
  • Encouraging them to attend to the basics: sleep, healthy eating, hygiene, exercise
  • Supporting connections with family, friends, coworkers, activities or groups they used to enjoy
  • Referring them to organizational supports such as a peer support team, employee assistance program, or connecting with their spirituality and spiritual supports
  • Encouraging them to discuss their experience with their supervisor