Wellness for Human Service Professionals on the Equity + Inclusion Journey

Self-care is crucial for all individuals in many professions, but it’s especially important that we focus on wellness for human service professionals. When you’re working with emotional and complex topics, self-care gives you the energy to keep going.


In our previous Ripples, we have shared the experience of our collective journey to the summit of Equity + Inclusion. While we continue along the path, we need to have ways to take care of ourselves, our colleagues, and the community served.


Share Collaborative’s Healing Focused Care model integrates approaches to do that—create an environment of self-care and wellness for human service professionals.


Why Wellness is Crucial for Preventing Social Work Burnout

Those who work in any area of human services know that burnout and exhaustion are prevalent. Preventing social work burnout requires awareness, acknowledgment, and an environment where self-care is encouraged and fostered.


Here’s what we know about social work burnout:

  • Turnover affects outcomes and impacts the lives of those being served. A 2015 Literature Review on Recruitment and Retention in Health and Human Services published by San Diego State University School of Social Work found the following:
    • “Research has found that high turnover in (human services) is a concern, for the financial cost that the organization must endure and, arguably more concerning, negative outcomes on the families being served. Research found that children with one caseworker had a 74.5% chance of permanency, compared to 17.5% for children with two workers, and 5.3% for children with three workers.”
  • Workforce demographics are evolving. The United States will soon have no clear racial or ethnic majority. By 2044, the majority of the U.S. population will be People of Color, according to an analysis of Bureau of the Census projections. According to new population projections, Whites will make up 49.7% of the population, followed by Latinos at 25%, African Americans at 12.7%, Asians at 7.9%, and 3.7% of the population will identify as multiracial. The journey of Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence will only become more crucial as social workers service people from many walks of life and backgrounds.
  • The workforce pool is shrinking. A Milwaukee Biz Times article from February 2017 reported: “Businesses in almost every industry across Wisconsin are facing the possibility of losing large numbers of employees to retirement in the coming years, and in many cases, the departures have already started. More than 23 percent of the state’s workforce is older than 55, a figure that’s more than doubled in the past twenty years and reaches as high as 30 percent in some sectors.”
  • Turnover affects the financial health of an organization. Broadly cited, the estimated cost of turnover to an organization for an employee making $40,000 per year is $20,000 or more per year. That calculation accounts for advertising, interviewing, screening and hiring. Costs also come from onboarding, training, management time, lost productivity, lost engagement, customer service errors, cultural impact on the workforce, and more. Replacement isn’t as simple as matching a salary.
  • Wellness for human service professionals is a critical piece of a trauma-informed service environment. Prevention and intervention strategies to address burnout, compassion fatigue, and the resulting turnover are clear and consistent in the research literature. Representative strategies are ongoing skills training, workplace self-care groups, self-care accountability buddy systems, and mindfulness training.


At Share, our experience leading programs of 10 employees up to agencies of 300 (serving thousands), clearly has shown us that addressing negative turnover is a key to the overall health of an organization. Much of that turnover comes from social work burnout.


As we noted in our conversation on the Journey to Equity + Inclusion, diversifying the workforce doesn’t necessarily result in retaining a diverse workforce. Intention and care must be paid to honor a person’s self-ascribed identity—their genuine and authentic self. To address this, we have iteratively designed a pathway to address social work burnout, compassion fatigue, and turnover, while also increasing employee retention by focusing on wellness for human service professionals.


The result in our experience has been a near-zero negative turnover rate. Similarly, outcomes have dramatically benefitted from this focus on wellness for human service workers.


“Trauma hangs out in the creative areas of the brain.” Jojopahmaria Nsoroma


Understanding the Connection of Equity and Wellness

The toll of systemic oppression is ever-present throughout our world and in all social interactions. Experiences of bias, prejudice, and ‘isms (racism, genderism, orientation-ism, age-ism, and on.) are ubiquitous. These encounters trigger our individual lived experiences and trigger that which our ancestors passed down through epigenetics and behaviorally through experiences of historical trauma.


What Our Learners Have Experienced About Wellness

In our Trauma + Resilience session, we include a brief overview of trauma-specific healing techniques. These wellness and healing techniques rewire the implicit memory of trauma experienced from the nonverbal brain to the verbal brain so that the trauma may be experienced as over and done.


When we experience a deep trauma, the verbal brain (which linearly records memories—beginning, middle, and end) goes off-line, leaving the nonverbal brain “in charge.” The nonverbal brain (traditionally labeled as the “right side” of the brain) records the memory. The nonverbal brain is the creative area of our brain, and it experiences time as the “eternal now,” as researchers explain. In other words, it’s always now in the nonverbal brain. Subsequently, the traumatic memory is sitting there cycling like a clothes dryer hunting around for similar situations. When we encounter them, it sets off our alarm system, and we return to fight, flight, or freeze mode. We become re-influenced by the pain resulting from the trauma.


This is all validated by science and most eloquently expressed by the neuroanatomist (studies the anatomy of neurons in brains) Jill Bolte-Taylor in her book and Ted Talk of the same name: My Stroke of Insight. Dr. Bolte-Taylor had a stroke that completely shut down her nonverbal “left-side” brain. She shares her experiences of being “trapped” in her nonverbal brain and her journey to rewiring it back to the point that she delivered the above Ted Talk, wrote her book, and read it on Audible. Her story of trauma resilience is astounding and hopeful.


In our Trauma + Resilience session, we concluded sharing this trauma-resolution technique to rewire traumatic experience. One of our learners asked, “What if the trauma isn’t done?” In the context of the moment, it was clear she was referring to gender and racial oppression.


As we explained in our response, some traumatic experiences are on a low hum (ever-present) that get explicitly and tragically expressed in certain moments and re-trigger the trauma.  We have been here before. The 1960’s. Rodney King. The Million Man March. George Floyd. A non-exhaustive list of moments and names, many lost to history. Each name—a mother, father, brother, sister, child, and on. Each the name of a person who was treated as “disposable.”


Our journey to Equity + Inclusion has been long and, while the movement is re-energized, potentially to a degree as never before, there is still much work to be done. If we are to sustain ourselves, we must have a way to take care of ourselves and each other to remain steadfast in our purpose on our journey to Equity + Inclusion. Self-care and wellness for human professionals is a vital component of the journey.


When the Journey Feels Exhausting

We were sharing our Team Wellness session with another group recently. In the session, we focus on wellness for human service professionals and practical applications of self-care. The heart of the session is a wellness check-in circle where we each share something that weighs on us right now.


Powerfully, one of our participants shared that she was tired. She was tired of being marginalized and tired of experiencing racism. She was tired of fighting through each and every day to achieve a degree of self and family stability that is simply handed out to others—tired of the fight and the struggle of it all.


Her expression of frustration and burnout was a healing moment for her to be heard, be seen, and express this pent-up anguish. She was lighter for having been so brave to share. If we’re to sustain ourselves and prevent social work burnout, we must have a way to take care of ourselves and each other. This self-care is crucial to helping us remain steadfast in our purpose during our journey to Equity + Inclusion.

Self-Care Fosters Empathy

Over the years, we have had the privilege and honor of sharing our Motivational Interviewing course with a group that reaches out to current members of the violent far-right, supporting them to see humans with different identities in a new, healthier way. The group helps these extremists to see “other” humans as fellow humans.


In our design of sharing MI, we have session one and session two a week apart. This course structure allows learners to go out and apply what they’ve learned in session one in their day-to-day settings and then return and report out how it went. Contextual learning ensues.


During the check-in of his practice, one learner had a common and apt observation: If we are to be compassionate and empathetic in the face of so much hate, we must practice self-compassion and self-empathy. His take on self-care for social workers was affirmed and validated by the rest of the group. If we’re to sustain ourselves, we must have a way to take care of ourselves and each other.


The Healing Focused Care Model

All the components of our Healing Focused Care model have elements supporting wellness for human service providers. Healing Focused Care consists of two strata or tiers. The initial strata are composed of the skills and concepts required to begin to summit the mountain to a higher level. Internally, we refer to this as the 3D + 4D aspects of what we share. This stratum is the integration of the following components, their intended purpose, and how they support our wellness:


Healing Focused Care Component

Intended Purpose

Wellness Impact

Motivational Interviewing (MI) Support direct service providers and other team members to listen and respond from a place of empathy and compassion, to hold space for those they serve, and surface the inherent thoughts, ideas, reliance, and genius to empower their journey of healing and growth.


Recommendations from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network are for utilizing evidence-based practices to reduce burnout, vicarious traumatization, and compassion fatigue. MI certainly fits the bill as research indicates practitioners using MI experienced greater joy and efficacy in their work.


Trauma + Resilience Teams deeply explore the variety of experiences that can be termed “traumatic” and how those experiences often manifest differently in each person. We explore, in brief, healing interventions and aspects of resilience. Understanding trauma, triggers, and how they manifest has two impacts on service providers: 1) It helps them de-personalize passive or aggressive presentations from served persons in mandated or voluntary service settings, which benefits their wellness. Learners connect with the concept that passive or aggressive presentations are “the trauma talking.” 2) It helps service providers tune into how trauma might have impacted themselves, go on their own path to healing, tap into their resilience, and recognize that we are all on our own healing journey.


Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence (CH2CR). This is our framework for Equity + Inclusion work.  A piece of the massive puzzle that sets forth the guideposts along the way as we have shared in previous Ripples which are comprised by the 4 Principles of Cultural Humility: 1) Self-Reflection + Lifelong Learning, 2) Served Person as Expert, 3) Community as Expert, 4) Institutional Reflection, Investment, and Modeling.


One of the primary gifts we share during the 4-hour initiation session is The Agreements you can find here. These provide a known, standard structure for all to have a dedicated and impromptu conversation about culture and identity that are healthy, generative, and forward-moving. Growth, learning, and healing ensue.
Reflective Supervision In essence, this is the application of all the above components while leading teams. Leaders that learn how to apply Reflective Supervision learn how to “hold space” or their team members in individual and group sessions.  We can also use it from colleague to colleague. In the birth to 3 movement, it was noticed that direct service providers were pinched between the vicarious traumatization of those they were serving and, at times, in different systems of care. Creating a space for team members to share whatever is going on with them personally or professionally while honoring their self-ascribed identity is a healing approach. This approach supports emotionally fried direct service providers to get “un-fried” and continue to show up with empathy and compassion for those they serve and themselves.


Team Wellness Team Wellness is our session that specifically targets wellness for human service providers. To create a safe space for the heart of the session in the check-in circle noted previously, we explore the healthy aspects of vulnerability. Our approach is informed by the work of Dr. Brenè Brown and our colleague Jojopahmaria Nsoroma. We check-in, and healing ensues.


Creating a space that recognizes our individual and group humanity in the face of so much pain—day after day is indicated for many reasons already shared in this post. Personal and professional growth ensues.


Our colleague Jojopahmaria Nsorom developed the second strata of Healing Focused Care, which targets our spiritual wellbeing.


Well-Beingness is a construct developed by our colleague, Noor Jawad.


These concepts and approaches attend to what we internally refer to as the 5D work, targeting our shared human journey’s energetic and spiritual aspects. 5D work is essential for all humans and can be particularly useful for those in social work and human service professions. Reducing social work burnout and stress is crucial for continuing in this vital work.


We look forward to sharing more on those aspects of wellness and self-care in a subsequent Ripple.


Until then, take care of yourself and those in your circle!

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