Navigating the hazards

Navigating the hazards

I’m going to tell you something that might come as a shock, so you might want to sit down before reading on. This is something that likely wasn’t spoken about during your training, but it is very real and can have a big impact on us. Ready?

Workplace hazards.

Yep, that’s right, our line of work has a lot of workplace hazards (see Leaving it at the Office by Norcross & VandenBos, 2018).

It may be the golfer in me, but I really love this term. For those less familiar with golf, a hazard is an area in the golf course that provides a (potential) obstacle for the golfer. Think sand traps and water. Even the most skilled golfers will find themselves right in the middle of a hazard—it’s just an inevitable part of the game. So, part of their training involves being aware of and prepared for the hazards. They even have special equipment (e.g., sand wedge club) that helps them recover from a hazard.

Makes perfect sense, right? Yet how many of us ever heard of “workplace hazards” during our training, never mind learning about “recovery” strategies?

I’m sure if you think about it you can identify some workplace hazards that you’ve encountered thus far in your career. I suspect for many of us we’d immediately think about things like certain patient/client presentations and behaviours (e.g., suicidal, hostile, ethical complaint, etc.) and various working conditions (e.g., organizational politics, inadequate financial compensation, lack of administrative supports, high caseloads, etc.).

Would you be surprised to learn that Norcross and VandenBos identify 5 additional categories of workplace hazards (emotional depletion, psychic isolation, therapeutic relationships, personal disruptions, and misc.), each of which contains several specific hazards? Even more interesting (at least to me) was the authors’ reporting that lack/uncertainty of therapeutic success is often identified as the most stressful feature of conducting therapy. Another, likely related, hazard identified in their book is the sense of responsibility for clients'/patients' lives.

If you’re like me, these specific hazards tend to arise when I’m working with a client who I feel isn’t improving or when I’ve had a session where I didn’t feel particularly helpful. And because we’re all human, the negativity bias kicks in and those clients or sessions seem to naturally overshadow the more positive aspects of our day. Or, as highlighted by Norcross and VandenBos, selective abstraction happens, where we make the mistake of believing the only events that matter are our “failures” and that we should measure ourselves by our perceived errors.

If these workplace hazards also resonate with you, here are a couple of ideas of how to “recover” from them:

  • Find an easy way to track the (perceived) outcomes of your sessions with clients. For me, this simply involved purchasing three jars and some beads. After each session, I’d rate my session as being very helpful, helpful, and not so helpful and place a bead in the appropriate jar.
  • Consult with a trusted colleague if you’re noticing a more consistent feeling of “failure” after meeting with a particular client or clients. Your colleague might offer some great suggestions or simply validate your experiences and find some positives where you have not.
  • At the end of your workday, get in the habit of mentally noting three things that went well. As you reflect on each experience, take 10 to 20 extra seconds to hold, expand, and breathe in the positive feelings ('Punch Out Positive', from Simple Self-Care for Therapists by Ashley Davis Bush, 2015). For an extra “punch” you might want to record these in a journal, so you have a visual reminder as well.

Just like golfers, the more we practice finding our way out of the inevitable hazards, the less nervous and more confident we can feel about our ability to play well on any course.