Caring for our frontline child protection workforce

CFCA Paper No. 42 – December 2016

Introduction

The Australian frontline child protection workforce is fundamental to keeping the most vulnerable children in our society safe from harm. Yet Australian child protection systems, as well as those internationally, are in continuing crisis as they struggle to retain a stable and healthy workforce in the face of large numbers of notifications, inadequate organisational resourcing and the increasingly complex issues facing at-risk children and their families.

Frontline child protection work is emotionally and psychologically demanding, and the associated stress can be compounded by factors within the workplace that are detrimental to worker wellbeing. Media scrutiny, adverse public opinion and judicial inquiries into child protection systems further add to the stress. Yet, more often than not, it is left to the individual worker to navigate the stressors and manage their own wellbeing.

Statutory child protection organisations and the systems in which they operate are difficult to change, and organisational factors such as heavy workloads are not easily addressed in the current climate of large numbers of child protection notifications and limited organisational resources.

However, while organisations and systems may not be easily changed, some aspects of the workplace may be more responsive to intervention.

One approach that shows promise is based in the emerging area of positive psychology in relation to work. Research to understand the factors that contribute to child protection workforce retention has primarily been undertaken in the United States and has, up until recently, focused on the detrimental factors (e.g., adverse culture and climate, work stress, compassion fatigue and burnout) contributing to a high turnover.1 Arguably, an approach that focuses on deficits contributes to a culture of blaming individuals for impaired workplace wellbeing.

Drawing on the positive psychology movement, the occupational health literature is moving away from a deficit-based perspective towards one of positive wellbeing, with a particular focus on employee work engagement and positive personal capacities.

1 For reviews see: DePanfilis & Zlotnik, 2008; Kim & Kao, 2014; Lewig, 2016; McFadden, Campbell, & Taylor, 2014; Mor Barak, Nissly, & Levin, 2001.