Thursday, March 28, 2024

The well-being of professionals: a shared responsibility

By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

Many professionals working with individuals who have committed sexual offenses often find it challenging to discuss their work with those around them due to fear of misunderstanding or trying to avoid any awkward silences. However, we should be extremely grateful to all these professionals for their daily dedication to preventing sexual violence and their willingness working with these clients. This type of work is far from easy and significantly affects the well-being of these professionals. They may experience emotional and psychological stress from repeated exposure to disturbing and traumatic accounts. Professionals may feel frustration, helplessness, or burnout when dealing with individuals who have committed sexual offences. Additionally, there may be ethical dilemmas and challenges in maintaining objectivity during treatment or supervision of offenders. The nature of the work can also impact personal relationships and social interactions, as professionals may encounter stigma or negative judgment from others. These challenges may partly explain why we face high staff turnover within our forensic services.

It is interesting but especially encouraging to see a growing focus in research on the forensic professional and how they experience their work. To illustrate, two recently published articles underline the impact of working with people who committed sexual offences.

Taylor and colleagues (2024) studied the effects of working with sexual offenders on Canadian probation officers. They interviewed 150 professionals and found that while some probation officers reported no significant impact, many struggled with the nature of their work. Repeated exposure to detailed stories of victimization and perpetration was linked to reduced mental well-being and the development of disorders such as PTSD among professionals. The gender of the professionals was identified as a vulnerability factor, as the field predominantly employs female professionals while working with mainly male offenders who may exhibit dominant behaviour and hostility towards women, which may lead to complex and even threatening interactions between the client and the professional. The personal circumstances of the professional, such as entering into new intimate relationships or the birth of a child, were also intertwined with the experienced negative impact.

Similarly, Maguire and Sondhi (2024) explored the extent and nature of work-related stress among police officers investigating rape cases and serious sexual offenses. They found that despite experiencing work-related stress, a substantial number of police officers continued to work. Many felt compelled to do so either by themselves or through pressure from colleagues or superiors. However, this coping mechanism often proved inadequate and led to negative consequences such as dissociation and compassion fatigue towards victims. While many officers knew where to seek support for psychosocial issues, most felt that their police department did not focus enough on promoting well-being and providing professional psychosocial support.

Whether working with individuals who have committed sexual offenses has a greater impact on well-being compared to working with other forensic populations remains debatable. Nevertheless, these and other studies emphasize that resilience and adequate self-care strategies are necessary when working in this field, which is also highlighted in a recent blog written by David Prescott, Janet DiGiorgio-Miller, and Sarah Snow Haskell. Self-care strategies are however not enough; support from colleagues and supervisors is also essential. It is not solely up to the individual professional to seek necessary support for psychosocial issues, work-related stress, moral dilemmas, etc., but colleagues and supervisors should also be attentive to possible signs of decreased well-being and pro-actively promote collegial or professional support. Caring for the professional is thus a shared responsibility.

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