How workers in the homeless sector can look after themselves

Working in the homeless sector during COVID-19 has been extra tough. Learn what may help if you’re on the frontline.

With the potential for the national homelessness rate to rise, there is cause for concern.

“Particularly on the back of 2020,” says Ben Vasiliou, CEO of Youth Projects, a Victorian-based charity that provides frontline support to young people and individuals experiencing homelessness.

“In Melbourne, our workers coped with the equivalent of three years’ work condensed into a six-month period last year.”

Ben explains that although people who were sleeping rough were moved to hotels during the height of the pandemic, that presented a new set of challenges for many homelessness workers on the frontline.

“Overall, I think it’s been an incredibly challenging time for everyone in the homelessness sector, which has been largely disregarded in the broader conversation about frontline healthcare workers during coronavirus, so it’s no surprise that burnout among staff is likely to be an issue in the coming months,” he says.

A pre-pandemic issue

Adam Robinson, founder of StreetSmart Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that raises funds to support grassroots community groups focused on homelessness, says workers in this sector often experience trauma, even outside of pandemic times.

The organisation recently launched SmartCare, which provides grants to help support the mental and physical wellbeing of frontline workers.

“When you know the care and help your clients need but you’re unable to provide it due to constraints that are beyond your control, it’s not uncommon to experience moral injury as a result,” he says.

This is a condition that occurs when your personal value system gets disrupted by morally challenging experiences. For example, the fact that homelessness services are forced to turn away around 260 people every day due to a lack of accommodation.

Ben adds that vicarious trauma, which is experiencing trauma as a result of being repeatedly exposed to the trauma of others, is also a real risk.

“Our workers are very resilient due to their training and qualifications, but they’re also very passionate about what they do and many also have lived experience so they’re incredibly empathetic,” he says.

“That does put them at an increased risk of developing vicarious trauma. Simply not seeing a great number of significant wins every day has an impact, too. This can leave workers feeling disappointed and deflated and that they’re not performing well, when in reality they’re doing everything they possibly can.”

What you can do

If you work in the sector, there are practical strategies to help protect your mental health and wellbeing from burnout and vicarious trauma.

1. Communicate openly with your employer

Ben believes that if the charity or organisation you work for is anything like Youth Projects, open communication will be welcomed and encouraged.

“We have a genuine understanding of how important staff wellbeing is for both our staff and our organisation, so we encourage our workers to speak openly and honestly about the challenges they face and what they need, whether that’s flexible hours or continuing to work from home.”

2. Celebrate even the smallest wins

Sharing good-news stories, no matter how small, with your colleagues helps to build resilience – for you and your workmates. A 2019 report aimed at improving understanding about vicarious trauma recommends making this an everyday practice.

3. Know the warning signs of burnout and vicarious trauma

Being able to recognise when you’re struggling is important so that you can seek help. Common signs of burnout include low job satisfaction, emotional stress, feeling frustrated by clients, being more irritable or angry than usual and never being able to ‘recharge your batteries’ fully.

Signs of vicarious trauma include disturbed sleep, feeling like you need to overstep the boundaries of your role and regularly feeling fearful or anxious.

4. Remember that it’s ok to not be ok

Work that involves supporting others through difficult times can be very rewarding, but it can also be mentally exhausting. If you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, remind yourself that it’s not a reflection of your skills or capabilities.

5. Seek support if you need it

“Our sector is inherently good at investing in employee assistance programs or EAPs,” says Ben.

“As a frontline worker, that’s always a good place to start if you feel like you’re overwhelmed or need support.”

There are other resources available too. Visit the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service for for information and advice about managing your mental health during the pandemic, or find a health professional to speak to.


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