Sunday, April 20, 2014

An Integrative Work-Life Balance

A very important part if the message that I teach is that working with trauma survivors is emotionally difficult, and that it is imperative that we take care of ourselves and each other. We are daily immersed in the pain of our client's lives. This includes sharing their past stories of abuse and neglect and their present experiences of rejection and inadequate resources. It includes being the recipients of the symptoms our clients have evolved to survive. It includes the anguish of caring for clients who connect and then leave. All these and many other experiences combine to create vicarious traumatization ( VT).

We have written extensively about how agencies can imbed attention to VT into their practice. This is essential. Recently people in our field have been paying more attention to VT, or burn out, or compassion fatigue. I am worried about an approach in which an agency says: here is a large caseload, and you are expected to work extra hours, and you will be on call, and we can't give raises for years. But we care about you and know this work is hard- so please take care of yourself and get a massage. On your own time and with your own money, of course.
Agencies must be responsive to the many ways in which they can help decrease VT in their employees.

Today, however, I want to challenge another part of standard anti-VT wisdom. One piece of advice that we often include is: learn how to leave your work at work, don't bring your work home.

However, this does not reflect the reality of any one that I know. Especially not anyone in a managerial position. These days our work and personal lives intertwine. We may be on call or provide back up in emergencies. We often work on projects at home. We can access our files and information from any where. We can always be reached. And our work interests us. Our minds are often engaged in solving a work problem, creating a new service, figuring out how to help a certain client more effectively.

It is important that we acknowledge and grapple with this current reality, rather than pretend that there could or even should be a clear and simple dividing line between work and life. Let's try to figure out this more complex question: how do we honor and protect all parts of our selves within this system?

The first step is to acknowledge the reality. Leaving work at work is not the goal for many of us. Then, consider your own unique self. What is energizing for you? How would you like this balance to be in your life? For some, it might be carving out certain time periods to step away from work. For others, it might be a mindfulness practice that increases one's skills at staying in the moment. Identify activities and connections that are essential to your own happiness and be watchful that these are not neglected. Maybe it includes thinking about what kind of work you do best at home, and scheduling time for that.

It is also important yo look at the at-work part of the equation. If there are projects (for me it is concentrated writing) that are best done at home, can you stay home during the work day? Can you adopt a Seize-the-Moment philosophy and actually leave when there is nothing urgent pressing? Can you incorporate flexibility during work hours to accomplish home chores?

Develop an awareness of what is creative thinking and what is obsessing. What are your techniques for ending obsessing, whether it be about work or home problems?

And cultivate the opportunities for weaving the best of yourself and your greatest joy into both work and home. Do you love nature? Can you figure out a perplexing work problem while walking in the woods? Do you create music? How can you bring that into your work place? Did you learn a new skill at work? Would it help with your own kids? Does seeing the kids you treat heal inspire you? How can you utilize that inspiration in your own struggles?

Let's continue this conversation about how we can stay sane, hopeful and energetic within our real work- life intertwining. Please share your thoughts by clicking "comment" below.

Sunday, April 06, 2014


I have been reading Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink (Riverhead Books, New York, 201). It is very interesting and relevant to both staff and clients.

He starts be reviewing scientific evidence which demonstrates that contingent rewards don’t work and in fact can be dangerous. Pink summaries these findings in a chart “Carrots and Sticks: The Seven Deadly Flaws” The flaws are:

  • “They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  • They can diminish performance.
  • They can crush creativity
  • They can crowd out good behavior.
  • They can encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior.
  • They can become addictive.
  • They can foster short-term thinking.”

 Pink shows that rewards and punishments only work when the behavior you are trying to increase is formulaic and repetitive, involves no problem solving or creativity. I can’t think of anything that we ask our staff or clients to do that fits that description.

So what do we do instead to improve performance? Pink describes that people respond to  autonomy, mastery, and purpose. How can we increase those for both our clients and our staff?

If you would like to hear the master himself, check out this TED talk:

Let me know your thoughts.