“Helping Professionals”
Feel Your Pain

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The Bride File




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Winter 2008





"I think an important message is not only that traumatic stress is an issue for many social workers but also that there are things we can do to support and protect them."

Brian Bride
associate professor
social work



“Helping Professionals”
Feel Your Pain

ugaresearch editor Helen Fosgate talks with Brian Bride about why social workers, in
trying to help, risk some of the same problems as their clients—and why we should care.


Brian BrideQ: Your latest research involves traumatic stress in social workers. Why are you studying this and what are you learning?

A: While social workers practice in diverse areas, they all come into contact with people who’ve experienced trauma—including, for example, children who are victims of violence or sexual abuse and adults who have seen the horrors of war. One important way to treat such clients is to let them talk openly about their experiences. But we’ve also found that repeatedly hearing these stories doubles the risk that social workers themselves will experience post-traumatic stress disorder. And while we teach them to compartmentalize these sessions, in truth it’s difficult to do.

Q: What effect does traumatic stress have on social workers and what are the implications?

A: They may suffer some of the same problems as their clients—depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse—which affects social workers’ ability to help others. Much depends on the setting and their caseload, of course; and even people who are not social workers but have similar contact—such as spouses and children of war veterans and Holocaust survivors—also suffer from this “secondary” post-traumatic stress. While the disorder appears to be significant among social workers, reliable documentation on it is lacking. We do have anecdotal evidence that social workers are leaving the profession because of what we call “compassion fatigue,” but we need more research in this area to determine the magnitude of the problem.

Q: How can social workers protect themselves from becoming victims of their patients’ trauma?

stressed womanA: We need to make sure that social workers have reasonable caseloads—they’ll be less likely to get overwhelmed—and that their benefits cover mental health treatment. Things are actually changing for the better in this area. Ten years ago, if a social worker expressed the need for such treatment, it was seen as a weakness. At present, there’s greater recognition of the stress involved and more support from employers, including days off and the sharing of especially stressful caseloads.

Q: Given the hardships, why do so many people continue to seek social work as a profession?

A: Mostly, people enter the field because of the immense satisfaction in helping others. Despite the compassion fatigue, social workers are proud that what they do is helpful to their clients and valuable to the society at large. We’ve found less traumatic stress in those who have more professional experience. We don’t yet know whether the experience gives them some protection against the trauma or whether it’s a sample bias—those who are the most traumatized leave the field and aren’t included in our surveys. We need a longitudinal study that follows social workers over a long period to answer this question and related ones.

Q: What is the main lesson we can take away from your research?

A: I think an important message is not only that traumatic stress is an issue for many social workers but also that there are things we can do to support and protect them. One big goal, for example, is to modify the organizational culture to accommodate their needs.

Another important message is that the public should care. Healthy and effective social workers, after all, can benefit individuals, families, and whole communities.

To contact Brian Bride, email him at:


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