Sustainable Social Work: Investing in a Healthy Work Culture
By Nora Mounce
When Nikki Kaufmann was hired at Wild Souls Ranch last October, she came with six years of social work under her belt. Having a particular strength for supporting victims of domestic violence, Kaufmann’s experience included direct fieldwork and managing the crisis hotline at a non-profit women’s shelter in Redding. In that role, she juggled both the needs of clients seeking support and the taxed emotions of the volunteers who staffed the hotline. Kaufmann found that trying to keep volunteers happy didn’t fulfill her in the same way as working one-on-one with clients. She remembers what she loved most about her work was connecting with women in their most vulnerable time– and helping them chart a path to strength and safety.
What Kaufmann didn’t love was being on-call nearly everyday for a $12/hour job. It was exhausting. And even worse, she didn’t have much support from her superiors. “Looking back, I realized how much I had let my job negatively effect me. I hadn’t learned appropriate boundaries to protect myself.” Describing the classic symptoms of burnout – all too common in the social work field – Kaufmann eventually took a leave of absence that turned into a permanent transition to Humboldt County. During this time, she developed a passion for rock climbing and backpacking. She spent more time with her three daughters and eventually, began to feel more at peace with her own history of trauma and assault. But she never lost her desire to serve her community or her love of social work. It just needed to be sustainable. “Self-care and boundaries are the most important thing for longevity in social work,” explains Kaufmann.
Since joining the team at Wild Souls, Kaufmann has seen more focus on the “missing pieces” - self-care, boundaries, support, and team building – than in her entire previous social work career. “It you don’t have management that models and facilitates appropriate self-care, it can be challenging,” she adds. While always respecting the philosophies behind social work, Kaufmann was like many employees, struggling with a work culture that minimizes human need and leans on power dynamics to function - or dysfunction. Kaufmann often felt like work dynamics mimicked the same social ills they were trying to treat. She was ready for a change.
“You can have positive work culture in social work,” says Wild Souls Executive Director Savanah McCarty. Explaining that is starts from the top, McCarty firmly believes that good leaders should be humble, open, and transparent. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to continue to work on themselves. At Wilds Souls, all staff regularly meet with MSW Holly Scaglione for counseling to support them around working with young clients who come to Wild Souls with histories of trauma and sexual abuse. “It’s the hardest work,” says McCarty, who believes that prioritizing the wellness of her staff is a logical choice. If employees don’t feel supported and fulfilled in their work, McCarty knows that stress and fatigue immediately funnels down to the clients. “If you don’t have a strong support system within your work culture, that’s where burnout happens,” adds McCarty.
To combat the many challenges of working with at-risk youth and social work, McCarty keeps an open door policy and encourages transparency and a holistic team approach at every opportunity. In 2019, Wild Soul’s Operations Director Dawn Watkins and Kaufmann will travel to Baltimore to attend a conference on the Wraparound program, a holistic approach to social work utilized at the Ranch. This summer, the entire staff will travel to Corning to attend a seminar with Buck Brannaman, a storied horseman who teaches that compassion and positive communication is key to successful relationships with horses – and one another.
After years of searching for a job that felt right, Kaufmann has found the work culture at Wild Souls to be empowering, holistic, and inclusive. Knowing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Kaufmann and the Wild Souls staff share this lesson with their clients by living their healthiest life.