This report presents on the findings of a study examining symptoms of burnout, vicarious traumatization and PTSD among workers in the homeless-serving sector. The challenges of working with homeless individuals, including the psychological stressors of working with clients who have/are experiencing trauma, addictions and mental illness, as well as the physical/environmental challenges of the work are discussed. Within this discussion, the risks and protective factors experienced by workers are addressed, as well as organizational aspects that may help or hinder workers in coping with employment stress.
We noted at the onset that a disproportionately number of frontline workers have minimal education and training for dealing with people who have multi-problems and live in complex environments. Even when those with a university degree are factored into this picture, most do not come to their positions with training in interview, counselling or intervention skills. Further, while addictions is a major issue for homeless persons, there are virtually no addictions counsellors among our respondents and thus there appears to be a serious lack of attention to the special interventions that are required for many homeless persons who also struggle with addictions.
Two hundred and forty five workers across 13 agencies participated in this study. These individuals include frontline workers, outreach workers, counsellors, clinicians and case managers, as well as receptionists. Participants were surveyed about their work (roles and responsibilities, educational level, length of time working in homeless sector), as well as screened for burnout, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue using the PROQOL. The PCL-6 was used to screen for symptoms of PTSD.
Of the 245 participants in this study, one third have worked in the homeless sector for 2 years or less, and another third for 2 to 5 years. Results from this study reveal that about 25% of workers in the homeless-serving sector in Calgary suffer from burnout and compassion fatigue to the point where job performance, as well as quality of life is decreased. Most noteworthy, approximately 36% of workers reported symptoms of PTSD that very likely would result in a diagnosis of PTSD.
As the workers are experiences symptoms of direct trauma, rather vicarious traumatization, we speculate that the very high levels of PTSD might be related to a combination of prior traumatic experiences, traumatic work events, as well as client trauma. Recommendations include education and support in the areas of interviewing, counselling, intervention and addictions, as a large number serving the homeless sector have little or no education in working with this population and have worked with this population for relatively short periods of time.