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Safeguarding Safeguarders: How Supervision improves Safeguarders’ mental, emotional and physical health

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily, and not be touched by it, is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.” Rachel Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom.

To support Safeguarders with the emotional burden they carry as part of their roles, HealthyMinds@Work have been providing Supervision for Trusts, Academies and Schools.  We thought it would be useful to explain what happens in Supervision to encourage more Schools and Trusts to provide this vital support.

The emotional burden carried by Safeguarders can be profound. Many Safeguarders regularly encounter distressing and traumatic situations as part of their jobs.  If not processed, this can have a serious impact on mental, physical, and emotional health. For schools, this compromises staff’s ability to perform, increases absences and can ultimately result in a decision to leave the profession.

But we believe there is a way to support Safeguarders through Supervision; by providing a safe and confidential reflective space to process the emotional impact of these high-pressured jobs.  We have been helping DSLs across the ARK Schools network for several years and we are proud to say that these groups ARE making a difference.  We also support Create Partnership Trust, Great Ormond Street and University College Hospital Schools plus several other Academy Trusts and Local Authority Schools.

The Supervision Session

We run both Group and Individual Supervision sessions across many different schools.  Although the groups will vary, we have some fundamentals in terms of structure and format.  We begin sessions by “checking in” with participants, asking them to rate their resilience that day on a scale of 0-5, where 0 is burnout and 5 is a “full tank” where they feel energised and motivated.  In doing this, we are inviting the group to be curious and in touch with their mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.   We are also encouraging them to prioritise their own self-care and their agency in looking after themselves.  A common myth that we actively want to dispel, is that Safeguarders can give endlessly to others or that they can take on full responsibility to keep these children safe.  This sometimes means getting in touch with their own limitations; a painful but necessary reality.

After the “check in” participants are asked to bring cases they would like to share with the group.  Sometimes these are ones which have really affected them.  They perhaps feel that they did not manage a situation well, they might feel conflicted about the level of support they were allowed to give (and not give) to a child/family or it may be a child whom has really got under their skin.  Other times, they bring cases they feel they ought to be shocked or upset by, but are consciously aware they have had a limited emotional response. Group members will also bring workload issues where they feel overwhelmed, or a tricky conversation with a student, parent, social worker, or colleague.  We will also discuss the impact and difficulties around students leaving or moving schools, working with other agencies, difficulties managing general stress and anxiety…or whatever comes up which feels helpful to explore together.

The group shares ideas, thoughts, advice, and often just knowing that others are going through something similar can be really helpful.  We are always touched by the level of empathy, support, and kindness that Safeguarders provide for each other and know the impact this has on individuals: that they feel heard, cared for and part of a wider group that is there for them.

Here is an example of some psychotherapeutic models and a fictional Safeguarding case we may discuss in a group.

The Karpman Drama Triangle

The Karpman Drama Triangle, created by Stephen Karpman in 1968[1], is a model we often refer to in Supervision.  It shows how we can get pulled into different unhelpful roles in interactions with others especially in times of stress.  Safeguarders and other care givers are often dealing with people under pressure and so they are at more risk of becoming entangled in the drama triangle.  The positions are the Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer.   Here is an example:

The DSL referred a parent to Social Services as the child had disclosed physical abuse.  The parent is furious with the DSL for referring them and blames them for the consequences this will have on the family.  The DSL feels angry, cannot stop thinking about the child after the meeting and then questions their actions as they feel responsible for the impact of the referral on the family.  They start to feel hopeless, like they can never get it right and are not providing any value in their job.

In Supervision we would think about the parent taking up the role of the persecutor as they angrily berate and blame the Safeguarder for what has happened.  The Safeguarder as a response to this behaviour, moves into the rescuer position where they feel overly responsible for what has happened and wants to fix it.  This then causes the Safeguarder to move into the victim position as they cannot solve the situation, feel hopeless, and to blame.  They then take up the persecutory position as they feel very angry and raise their voice when speaking to the parent.

When we are in the Drama Triangle, we feel it physically as our bodies go into fight/flight mode (where we feel under threat and so produce the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol).  This takes away energy and can have many physical and emotional consequences; headaches, lack of sleep, finding it hard to concentrate, stress, and anger.

In the group we talk through the positions the Safeguarder may get pulled into and how they can remove themselves from these enactments.  When Safeguarders find themselves in rescuer mode, an occupational hazard, where they want to make it better or take on more responsibility, we discuss:

  • What can you do to help and support?
  • What can you not do and what are you not responsible for?
  • What feelings does not being able to fix it bring up for you?
  • How can you compassionately mange the feelings that come up when you cannot fix it?

Often by exploring and expressing these emotions within the group Safeguarders feel less likely to take up the drama triangle positions and take unhelpful feelings home.

The Sponge Effect

Safeguarders and those in the caring professions will often absorb feelings, stress, and the anxieties of others especially when emotions are heightened.  We call this the Sponge Effect and it is an inevitable but psychologically difficult part of the job.  On the one hand they need to be empathetic to others, and often the profession attracts those with these skills and sensibilities.  However, if they are overly empathetic it can feel “as if” it is happening to them, which is draining and can lead to burnout or vicarious trauma, subsequently reducing their ability to do the job, and maintain their mental and physical health. Using the example above, we would ask the following questions:

  • What feelings might you be carrying for the parent, child and other people involved?
  • Are you overly identified with the family, “in the trenches” or feeling as if it is happening to you?
  • How do you show empathy but not become overly attuned where now you are suffering “as if”?
  • How do you separate yourself from feelings that you might be carrying for others without becoming too distanced?
  • How do you create healthy boundaries so that you can be empathetic but not overly attuned?

Many Safeguarders will say at the end of such sessions “I feel so much lighter”, or “I now feel sad but know it is not my responsibility as I had to refer the parent”.  They understand more about the feelings brought up about the case, they can untangle appropriate emotions of sadness or upset while letting go of the stress, anxiety, blame and hopelessness they are experiencing. This level of emotional processing is key to staying healthy.

As psychotherapists, it is a professional requirement that we have regular Supervision.  We know that this is instrumental in supporting our patients and ourselves.  It reduces burn out, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, keeps us physically and mentally healthy and is an opportunity to process the very difficult struggles of others we listen to. We also get to celebrate when people feel better, when the therapy is helping and acknowledge the value of the work we are doing.

Ideally all Safeguarders would similarly have access to Supervision so that they can be supported in the invaluable work they do.  However, schools are under immense pressure to manage within dwindling budgets.  The case to provide this essential support then becomes an economic one.  Fortunately, the business case is compelling.  When staff have a dedicated space to reflect on their own mental and emotional wellbeing, there is a tangible difference improving health, reducing absences, and increasing staff retention, productivity, and performance.

If we can safeguard Safeguarders then they are better equipped and more emotionally available to look after the students, families, and wider community.   For some of these families, these interventions will transform their lives, improve their health and ability to thrive in a challenging world.   

[1] See Wikipedia for a helpful and in-depth overview of the Karpman Drama Triangle

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