Nov. 9, 2022

Improving the wellness of frontline care workers helps build stronger communities

UCalgary social work researcher examines staff well-being in organizations serving people experiencing homelessness
Improving the wellness of frontline care workers helps build stronger communities
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This story is the first in a three-part series on how University of Calgary researchers and the United Way are making progress in the areas of raising successful kids, building strong communities and overcoming poverty. Together, we can improve lives in our community. Find out how you can help

You’ve heard that saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” To effectively take care of others, we must first take care of ourselves.

A UCalgary Faculty of Social Work professor sees this as key to the wellness of frontline care workers in our community. If they aren’t taken care of, how can they take care of those who need them?

Dr. Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff, PhD, is exploring ways to improve the wellness of staff in organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness.

“Prior to joining academia, I was a registered psychiatric social worker. I had direct experience working in the delivery of mental health services, so my current research really pulls all my previous work together,” she says.

Staff wellness at the Calgary Drop-In Centre

For Waegemakers Schiff, what started in 2014 as a study looking at burnout in frontline staff has expanded in multiple directions, including a look at staff wellness during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. One organization she examined closely was the Calgary Drop-In Centre (DI).

The DI provides essential care, health services and housing support to adults experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. Its staff often find themselves as first responders to disturbing incidents. This type of work can lead to traumatic stress symptoms such as upsetting memories, flashbacks, emotional distress and preoccupation with negative events they’ve experienced.

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff

Jeannette Waegemakers Schiff

Waegemakers Schiff found that in 2021, during the beginning of the pandemic, the DI had a slight drop in traumatic-stress symptoms among its staff. It also experienced a lowering of burnout, compared to data collected in 2019. A major reason for this change can be attributed to administrative changes that addressed communication around staff wellness.

“The organizational leadership were very proactive in prioritizing staff wellness, particularly by recognizing that staff were working in highly stressful environments that could lead to burnout, or stress leaves,” says Waegemakers Schiff.

By adopting a clear communication strategy, the DI was able to prioritize initiatives focused on reducing burnout and stress symptoms among staff. One such initiative was an orientation week called Kindness Camp that provided mentoring and shadowing in addition to training.

Additionally, the DI started including advisories in its job postings that certain positions may not be suitable for everyone due to the highly stressful work environment. This messaging helped to prepare people coming into the organization by managing their expectations.

Taking care of the service delivery system

Waegemakers Schiff says she hopes her study can act as a model that can be adopted by other organizations.

“We are able to show that getting leadership on board with the right kind of training and the right kind of support is really going to have a measurable impact on increasing the well-being of staff in the organization,” she says.

“You aren’t going to be able to provide good services if you’re not taking care of the service delivery system. Having organizations recognize the psychological hazards involved in the workplace is a really important start because we can’t build in appropriate training and protections without that initial understanding and recognition.”

United Way builds communities in Calgary

United Way agency partners seek to meet people where they’re at to address the most pressing problems in our communities. In Calgary, one in 10 residents struggles with low income. This presents daily challenges for individuals in securing basic needs and ensuring their mental health needs are met.

According to a 2020 Angus Reid survey, nearly 40 per cent of low-income Calgarians report feeling lonely, more than double the percentage of higher-income Calgarians. Many do not know what supports and services are available to them.

To meet this need, the United Way’s Community Hubs initiative engages residents by offering welcoming and inclusive gathering places and connecting them to supports and services.

When people have access to services in their communities, they have a much better chance to thrive.

Together, UCalgary and the United Way are working to build stronger community connections. Your donation to the United Way supports collaborative initiatives like Community Hubs that build stronger communities by engaging and supporting residents to create positive personal connections. A better tomorrow starts with you.

UCalgary’s 2022 United Way Campaign runs until Dec. 9. This year’s goal is to raise $435,000 to help improve local lives.

Donate to UCalgary’s United Way campaign by logging in with your UCalgary email address.