Working on the front line with people who are affected by traumatic experiences is a common situation for helping professionals. Helping/responding professionals need to be aware of the way they can be affected by exposure to other people’s trauma. By creating awareness of the risks associated with caring for others, prevention of harmful stress and burnout may be possible. Self-care refers to a range of practices involving maintaining balance, setting limits, developing healthy habits, nurturing one’s self and being mindful of one’s physical, cognitive and emotional state. Individuals and organizations must acknowledge the risks and support the strategies intended to ensure professional and personal wellness of helpers.
Helping professionals must realize that self-care is not an abstract or idealistic aspiration, but a professional ethical obligation. Professional codes of ethics include very specific expectations for professionals to engage in self-care practices. The Canadian Psychological Association Code of Ethics (2000) clearly describes the professional obligation to seek peer consultation and to “engage in self-care activities…” (section II.12). The Canadian Counselling Association Code of Ethics (2007) considers self-care a key professional responsibility and requires that “…counsellors maintain high standards of professional competance and ethical behaviour and recognize a need for continuing education and personal care” (CCA, 2007, section A1).
Self-care practices can be developed and maintained at the individual, the peer group and the organzational level. Individual strategies may include physical practices such as exercise, nutrition, body and healing therapies, as well as social support, spiritual practices, replenishing activities and well defined boundaries. Peer group strategies include support group opportunities, peer consultation and peer supervision. Organizational strategies include education and training that promotes awareness of the risks for compassion fatigue, provision of clinical supervision, limiting case loads and work hours, arranging debriefings and formalized self-care plans. Helpers are ethically responsible to themselves, their clients and their colleagues tobe aware of this potential occupational hazard, and to develop self-care practices.