Family Relationships Quarterly No. 18

AFRC Newsletter No. 18 – March 2011

What about me? Self care for workers in the family law context: Conference report

by Rebecca Eberle

One of the benefits of cross-disciplinary networks such as Family Law Pathways Networks is that they can address issues of concern to practitioners who, although working with families in diverse ways, are faced with similar professional and personal challenges. This is particularly so for family lawyers who, as a profession, do not have a tradition of structured supervision and de-briefing. The Albury-Wodonga Family Law Pathways Network conducted a one-day conference in mid-2010 that explored the issues of worker burnout, stress and vicarious trauma in the family law context. This report gives a brief insight into the day.

The idea for the conference theme came about at a Family Law Pathways Network Reference Group Meeting in June 2009. A local family lawyer who attended that meeting said that she felt almost "physically ill" when passing by the local Family Law Court registry due to the stress that her work was causing. Many other workers spoke about similar experiences of feeling overwhelmed and defenceless in the face of a never-ending tide of parents in high conflict.

Delegates from a range of organisations participated in the conference, including the Child Support Agency, Centrelink, Family Relationship Centres, Centacare, Upper Murray Family Care, Hume Riverina Community Legal Service, Gateway Community Health, Family Court staff and family lawyers, as well as staff from a women's refuge, a children's contact service and a parenting orders program. The program provided a mix of keynote addresses, a theatre group performance, networking and a presentation from the Family Court of Australia's Chief Justice, Diana Bryant.

Keynote speaker Caryn Walsh provided useful information about stress, burnout and vicarious trauma, as well as how workers and organisations can address these issues. Suggestions for service providers arising from a subsequent brainstorming session included:

  • ensure staff have access to regular and skillful supervision, as well as opportunities for formal and informal de-briefing;
  • engage in team building activities - services should consider having a day or session dedicated to activities that promote team work, preferably involving fun;
  • maintain professional development and training for staff, especially in relation to dealing with difficult situations;
  • ensure staff receive positive recognition for their hard work; and
  • engage a consultant periodically to check on individual stress levels of staff.

Self-care implies a degree of personal responsibility, and delegates were reminded of the importance of having "mental health" days, working from home occasionally, taking annual leave, having a massage and sharing lunch with colleagues.

The Playback Theatre performed using ideas, feelings and scenarios from the audience to re-enact their stories. The performance was heartfelt and really tapped into some of the emotions that are commonly felt by workers who give so much of themselves to their work while still maintaining busy home and family lives. Many audience members brought out the hankies as tears were shed!

This conference highlights the need for practitioners working with families in crisis, and their employers, to have strategies in place to monitor and address work-related stress. It also demonstrates that inter-disciplinary networking has the potential to benefit the professionals involved, as well as the clients they seek to help.

Rebecca Eberle is with the Albury Wodonga Family Law Pathways Network