UK Social Work, National Association of Public Defense Partner to Study Self-Care Among Public Defense Professionals

While working in public defense can undoubtedly be challenging, research shows that those working in that field face many of their own trials.

From high caseloads and low wages to poor public perceptions of their work, these conditions can lead to a high rate of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and professional burnout.

“Individuals employed in public defense have an extremely difficult job,” explained College of Social Work Dean Jay Miller, lead investigator of the study. “Despite well-documented challenges, very few research studies have examined self-care as a pragmatic strategy for addressing the problematic circumstances facing these professionals.”

To better understand how to support those employed in public defense, researchers in the College of Social Work (CoSW) Self-Care Lab at the University of Kentucky conducted an insightful study in collaboration with the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD).

This comprehensive project surveyed over 9,000 attorneys, social workers, investigators, and others, employed in public defense contexts throughout the United States. The first phase of the study, which concluded this past August, assessed several aspects of self-care and wellness and factors that influence self-care practices.  

Overall, researchers found that participants engaged in moderate amounts of self-care. Data showed that many participants struggled with balancing professional tasks and personal responsibilities.

Additionally, analyses revealed that public defense professionals from under-represented or historically marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ* professionals, scored lower across all self-care domains.

“This study brings to the surface the fact those in public defense regularly sacrifice their own needs to serve our clients,” explained Jeff Sherr, Training Director for National Association of Public Defenders. “This research partnership has highlights areas of need related to public defense employees, and more importantly, illuminates some pragmatic strategies for organizations and agencies to better support public defense employees so they are able to perform at their best for our clients.” 

Ultimately, both Miller and Sherr see self-care and wellness among public defense employees as an issue important to accessing justice.

“To make certain that individuals receive the best possible legal representation and services, it is imperative that public defense employees be supported in engaging in appropriate self-care and wellness practices,” explained Miller. “This study will provide key information to achieve those aims.”  

To learn more about The Self-Care Lab, you can view this video. You can read a research note about this project here. If you have additional questions about this project or would like to receive a copy of the full report, email selfcarelab@uky.edu.

New UK Social Work Study Zeros in on Self-Care During COVID-19

By Lindsey Piercy, LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 8, 2020) — It is a profession committed to the well-being of others — social workers provide a broad range of services and help people cope with everyday issues.

But meeting the needs of others day after day, while potentially putting their own needs aside, could lead to burnout. Now, add the stressors that accompany a global pandemic.

To learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on social workers, researchers in the College of Social Work (CoSW) Self-Care Lab at the University of Kentucky conducted an insightful study.

“We focus a lot on the acute medical issues associated with COVID-19, and social workers are definitely doing pertinent work alongside other health care providers in that arena,” College of Social Work Dean Jay Miller, lead investigator of the study, said. “But social workers are also doing work to address other problematic consequences, such as unemployment, growing mental health needs, child protection and access to education. These factors certainly make for stressful practice conditions, which can contribute to professional burnout.”  

Burnout, a term first coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1975, describes what happens when a practitioner becomes increasingly inoperative. As symptoms worsen, its effects can turn more serious.

That begs the question, how can social workers provide compassionate care for others if they are not doing the same for themselves?

To better identify self-care issues, the comprehensive study surveyed social work practitioners throughout Kentucky. This is the first-known study to examine the impact of COVID-19 on self-care among social work practitioners.   

The study, launched this summer, assessed several aspects of self-care and factors that influence self-care practices among social work practitioners in a wide array of settings. 

Researchers found that since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in early March, self-care practices among social workers have significantly decreased. In fact, over 90% of practitioners reported COVID-19 has negatively affected their ability to engage in adequate self-care.

“Given the importance of self-care to the profession, these findings are extremely concerning,” Brenda Rosen, executive director of the Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said. “This research really illustrates the need to support social workers during this unprecedented time.” 

While some of the findings were expected, researchers noted a few surprising results. For instance, analyses revealed that gender, race/ethnicity and sexual orientation are all factors that influence engagement in self-care. 

In summary, social workers who identified as female, white or LGBTQ* reported engaging in significantly fewer self-care practices.

Additionally, practitioner’s working remotely reported struggling to engage in adequate self-care practices.

“Though there are certainly commonalities, results from this study show that people are experiencing the pandemic in very different ways,” Miller explained. “Responses and interventions aimed at improving self-care must take these differences into account.”

The CoSW understands managing crippling stress among these practitioner groups is fundamental to their well-being and the well-being of the populations they serve.

Researchers, like Miller, believe self-care is not only indispensable but cannot be ignored. He hopes this study will highlight the need to examine and develop beneficial approaches to support all helping professionals.

“For the foreseeable future we, as a society, will be dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19. Social workers, and other professionals, will be instrumental in the recovery from this pandemic,” Miller said. “Given the importance of these practitioners, it is absolutely imperative that we build a knowledge base that informs how we support them. This study contributes to doing just that.” 

To learn more about The Self-Care Lab, you can view this video. If you have additional questions about this project or would like to receive a copy of the full report, email selfcarelab@uky.edu.

Self-Care Lab Inks New Agreement with Researchers at University of Bucharest

In October, the CoSW announced yet another global partnership to continue its work examining the self-care and wellness practices of helping professionals around the world within their Self-Care Lab (SCL).

This new partnership, which now includes researchers from the University of Bucharest, adds to the already growing list of established formal research partnerships within the Global Self-Care Initiative, with investigators and academic institutions in Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Finland, Ethiopia, and Finland, to name a few. This new research will examine cultural nuances in self-care practices among social workers in Romania.

“Self-care is a concept that has no geographical boundaries. These types of partnerships allow for a more robust examination of self-care practices and it deepens our understanding of how to support helping professionals to engage in these practices” explained College of Social Work Dean Jay Miller.  

The Global Self-Care Initiative is part of a bigger picture at the CoSW. In Spring 2018, CoSW received a grant to launch the SCL. The SCL, which officially opened its doors on June 1, 2018, is specifically dedicated to empirically investigating self-care among helping professionals, with broad ranging self-care research and education among social workers, educators, nurses, law enforcement and other helping professionals. In doing so, the lab seeks to address potentially toxic employment conditions.

“We care about helping professionals and we care about the populations they help. We want to support them in providing the best professional service possible,” Miller said. “We can do that through rigorous clinical research and innovation related to self-care.”

Among a host of practice interventions and clinical trials, the SCL affords students, faculty and staff from across campus the opportunity to engage in scholarship and research directly related to self-care among helping professionals.

The ultimate goal is to help those who are in the helping profession understand self-care does not and should not have to be sacrificed.

The SCL is the first known entity to be explicitly dedicated to examining self-care among helping professionals. The Global Self-Care Initiative is the largest-scale examination of self-care practices among practitioners. “The empirical work emanating from the SCL has really reframed approaches to self-care and wellness among social workers, specifically, and helping professionals, more generally,” Miller concluded. “The international scope of these works demonstrate the reach and impact of CoSW researchers, students, and staff. I’m excited to see what comes next.”