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Social workers confront stress while striving to meet clients' varied needs

021821IN-DEPTH-PANDEMIC-SOCIAL-WORKERS

Pedestrians walking along Mississippi Avenue in Portland, Ore., could see this hand-written message March 18, 2020, that acknowledged people are frightened amid the coronavirus pandemic but also was a reminder to be kind to one another. (CNS photo/Alex Milan Tracy, Reuters)

 

By Dennis Sadowski

Catholic News Service

 

        CLEVELAND (CNS) - Rose Bak has seen the stress on the faces of the social workers and case managers of the staff at Catholic Charities of Oregon.

        Under the yearlong pandemic, they look weary. Workers have described feeling depressed, anxious and isolated after hearing hundreds of tough challenges their clients are facing.

        "People are tired and they're stressed out," Bak, chief program officer for the agency, said in early February from Portland, Oregon.

        "People (out of work) are needing a little bit more," Bak told Catholic News Service. "I expect when the eviction moratorium expires (in several months), the number of cases and the needs will jump up."

        Social workers realize they are doing their best to respond to people who have lost their jobs and are encountering food shortages, utility shutoffs, eviction notices and lack of internet access, preventing their kids from learning at home. Still, they face formidable mental health challenges.

        Ailene Farkac, a case management specialist with Catholic Charities of Oregon's Save First Financial Wellness program, is among the front-line emergency responders. Hired by Catholic Charities in July after a stint with Mercy Corps doing similar work, Farkac has heard the traumatic stories. She has connected people with resources and helped them develop a personal budget plan to carry them into the future.

        Her work often extends beyond traditional working hours. She acknowledged the work can be hectic - like a period in September when her voicemail filled to capacity time and again even after she deleted messages when a new round of aid became available. While stressful, Farkac knows she's doing some good.

        "I feel pretty good at night when I go to sleep. I know I am absolutely making a difference. As a team we are helping a tremendous amount of people. Yes, it is stressful and yes, it's difficult to hear some of the stories, but getting to know people and hearing that human perspective helps community building."

        It's important during times of high stress, Farkac and other social workers told CNS, to step away and recharge. Farkac creates crafts, reads and cooks for her adult children who live nearby. For others, such as Senta Kline, a program manager with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Cleveland, it's getting outside for a walk and maintaining good nutrition.

        "We're health-conscious. We eat well. We sleep well. We really preach self-help to our clients so we have to work really hard at our own self-care," said Kline, who with another colleague manages Families of Promise, a case management program for children who have a parent who is or has been incarcerated.

        The pandemic has caused Kline to rethink how she interacts with her young clients because the deepening of the pandemic in the fall and the onset of winter weather has meant she rarely sees people in person. Online conferences have helped ease her mind. The approach of spring and the potential return of home visits - from a distance - is on the horizon.

        Kline's husband, Spencer, also works for Catholic Charities of Cleveland. He is senior director of treatment, prevention and recovery services and acknowledged that "it's been a challenging year" for the program's staff.

        "Our clients have multiple versions of trauma in their life. Their everyday life is an everyday crisis. That does take its toll (on case managers)," he said.

        As an administrator, Kline said he regularly reminds colleagues to take time for themselves, telling them, "You're employed, but you're a family member first."

        It's a similar stance embraced by Catholic Charities operations nationwide.

        "We minister to our own team members. We tell them 'family first,'" said Gary Tester, president of Catholic Charities of Central Florida in the Diocese of Orlando. "The reason we take that approach, if you're going to serve families in need at the expense of your family, then we have a problem. We advise them to reprioritize to stress that."

        Catherine Galda, director of behavioral health and senior wellness services at the agency, said leaders saw early on that employees were going to face a rapid rise in calls for assistance and began planning to make sure staff could "deal with tough situations." They wanted to give front-line intake workers the opportunity to talk through the difficult situations they were hearing about.

        "Being able to do that helps us to process the feelings that we're having and helps us to be able to step into the fray," Galda told CNS.

        The agency's behavioral health team developed informational flyers that were based on material offered through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

        "We wanted to people to understand we're all traveling on the same river, but in a different boat," Galda explained. "The idea was to put it out there right in front: This is what you may be experiencing, what it is, what you can do about it, and this is where you can talk."

        Such personal care is important to the mission of the Family Counseling Center program with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Venice, Florida.

        As the pandemic emerged and some programs, such as children's day care, were closed, nonclinical staff were reassigned to handling incoming calls from people seeking assistance, said Geralyn Poletti, the center's director. Clinical workers knew how to redirect the stress, but for the nonclinical workers anxiety built.

        The agency established debriefing sessions, Poletti said, "letting them ventilate" and giving the workers new tools to cope. Catholic Charities diocesan administrators also are planning two wellness days in March to teach employees different forms of self-care.

        "The biggest thing for us is for people to know to leave your work at work. Clinicians learn that. The nonclinical staff don't know how to come home and cut off the stories they've heard and bring the stress home with them. That's what we're teaching them."

        Similar efforts are underway at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio.

        Nancy Voitus, executive director of Catholic Charities Regional Agency serving three counties along the Pennsylvania border, told CNS the challenges posed by the pandemic to the staff of 40 make it all the more necessary that social workers take personal time away from the more critical day-to-day concerns they are encountering.

        "Nobody calls us because they're having a good day," Voitus said. "Everyone who calls, it's because they have a problem. That's what you're going to hear all day. We encourage staff to take time off, make sure they're using their vacation time."

        Distractions also help.

        At Christmas, staffers organized a craziest sock contest. They also plan socially distanced lunches in the office. And "sometimes we just try to let off steam," Voitus said.

        "I think everybody's trying to take care of each other a little bit more," she said. "I do think the staff is a little bit more united because we're all in this together. We're all on the same page trying to stay safe, being concerned for one another, but being concerned for others too."

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