Burnout, compassion fatigue, and work-related stress are common amongst those in the helping professions. Whether you're a social worker, first responder, nurse, nursing assistant, student or aid worker, chances are that others doing similar work have similar worries, frustrations, and self-care challenges.
In many of these professions, however, it can be difficult to share these feelings with others due to stigma or the fear of being perceived as weak. A great way to combat this stigma and to create a safe place for sharing is through mutual support groups.
In a mutual support group, members of a peer group work together to address issues and challenges faced by members. Unlike professional support groups, self-help groups are not usually facilitated by a professional and instead are run by the members themselves. By getting together with a group of people to listen, share your feelings and engage in group problem solving, you can become more resilient and improve your overall wellbeing. Studies have shown that peer-led groups can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and increase self-esteem.
If you want to join an existing mutual support group to talk about work-related stress, you have a couple of options. Many workplaces already have networks of people participating in this type of group or may have a formal system in place. To find these you can ask around or talk to your HR department and see if they are aware of any groups. Many professional associations also offer groups. These are usually focused on members of a particular profession and include people from many different agencies. In my area, the local chapter of the National Association of Social Workers holds a monthly mutual support group for social workers in many different areas of direct client care. Search for your local group online and see if they offer something similar.
If you can't find a group that fits your needs, then you might consider starting your own. It's very easy to do and has the benefit of being tailored to exactly what you're looking for.
Think this is the right thing for you? Here's how to get started.
Step 1: Decide What You Want the Group to Focus On
One of the benefits of starting your own mutual support group is that you have the freedom to decide what type of group you want to form. Do you want to focus on a specific aspect of self-care? Coping with a specific stressor or mental health issue? The specific challenges faced by a sex/race/ethnicity/age group/profession in the workplace?
Figuring out the types of topics you want to focus on and then finding people that share the same concerns will be a lot easier than forming a group and then trying to find a focus.
Simply saying you want to form a group to discuss workplace stress might work, but you might also get some people who want to express stress management, some who want to gossip about who's causing them stress, etc. A better approach is to go into this with a clear objective: "I am looking to form a group of nurses to discuss self-care and stress management techniques" or "I am looking to form a group to talk about the unique stressors faced by Nursing Assistants in the Hospital".
Step 2: Decide Where Your Group Members Will Come From
Before you recruit people to join your group, you need to address whether you will be looking for people who work for the same agency/organization as you or if you want to meet with people from outside your agency. There are pros and cons to each method, so consider what will work best for you.
Inter-agency Groups: Pros and Cons
One of the major pros of this type of group is that you will be talking with people who understand the exact context you’re working in. They know the challenges of the work environment first hand and know your agencies rules and regulations. It's a lot easier to connect with what's going on right now.
Another pro is that there are fewer issues related to client confidentiality. As long as you are meeting in a completely private place, you may be able to discuss challenges or situations in more details without compromising client/patient confidentiality or violating HIPAA laws.
The cons: when you're meeting with other people in the same office, it might be more difficult to open up and discuss issues that may relate to fellow employees or the organization as a whole. Will all of the group members will be from within the same professional grade or may some be supervisors? How will this impact the group's willingness to share?
Intra-agency Groups: Pros and Cons
On the other hand, if you meet with people from outside your own agency, you may be more comfortable discussing workplace issues and conflicts with other employees. You may feel more freedom to discuss your own challenges and feelings of burnout or compassion fatigue. Many people feel less fear of it being reported to your boss or impacting your position.
The cons of meeting with people outside of your agency are that you won't be able to discuss specific clients/patients and you will have to pay much greater attention to the details that you share with the group.
Step 3: Recruit Your Group Members
Once you've picked a type of group, it's time to start recruiting members. If you've chosen an inter-agency group, this will probably be a much quicker task. You can start by asking a few people that you are close to and that might be interested. If they're not interested, do they know of someone else who might be? If you're stuck, you can consider posting a notice on an agency bulletin board or send out an agency-wide email. Just be sure to be clear about what the group is and who you're looking for.
If you've decided to create an intra-agency group, the search may be a little harder. You'll want to find people who are in the same general line of work as you (I think the more similar the better). To do this you can start by asking people you know at other agencies if they know people who would fit the bill. You can also post on profession groups or send them out to professional networks. Some good places to find these types of message boards are local chapters of professional networks (i.e. NASW for Social Workers), facebook (search for your profession and region) or LinkedIn.
Make sure that you speak to each potential member individually and that you're on the same page. Let them know that you'll give it a try and see how everyone clicks. I would start small with 4-5 groups members. You can always add more people if some dropout or if you feel like you need more voice.
Step 4: Find a Place to Meet
Finding the right place to meet is essential to the success of the group. You need a place where people feel comfortable both physically and emotionally. It should be quiet and have some privacy. If you're planning to meet in a public place remember that other people will be able to hear your conversations (seriously!) and you never know who will be around (co-workers, patients, clients).
Some good options are private spaces (i.e. at members homes if you're comfortable) or private rooms at local libraries or coffee shops (you can usually call ahead and reserve these). Your agency may also be willing to provide a private conference or meeting rooms.
Step 5: Schedule Your Meetings
While some groups are able to operate on a “when they need it” basis, most groups find it beneficial to meet on a regular schedule. Decide how often you want to meet (weekly, biweekly, monthly, etc.) and on what days and times. Some groups also find it easier to schedule the next meeting at the current meeting to account for everyone's changing or inconsistent schedules.
Step 6: Set the Ground Rules
Even if you know all of the group members, it's a good idea to set some ground rules during your first meeting. This sets the tone for how the group will be run and can prevent it from becoming just another hangout session (unless that's what you're looking for!). You should make these rules as a group so that everyone is in agreement and has a voice.
Here are some things to consider:
What Happens in Group Stays in Group
When talking about workplace stress, people may be vulnerable and share private details about their thoughts and emotions. It's a good rule of thumb to ask group members to agree not to discuss anything that was talked about outside of the group time. You should also discuss how your professional ethics and duty to report serious issues may come into play. While you may agree to keep your conversations private, group members still have an obligation to disclose serious ethical or legal violations to the proper authorities.
The purpose of this type of group shouldn't be to discuss specific patients, but rather our own feelings. Be sure to remember that even if what happens in group stays in the group you need to respect the confidentiality of the clients. You should make it clear in the beginning that members will be reminding each other of this rule if it seems like a member might be at risk of sharing too much.
Share the Space
Your mutual support group is meant to benefit all members not just one or two. How will you handle it if one group member seems to be taking up all the time with their issues or perspectives?
Adding New Members
Discuss with the group whether or no new members will be allowed to join you. Is there a process for adding new members or can current members bring friends and colleagues with them if they think it will benefit the group? I recommend that if a member has someone that they think would be a good addition that they discuss it with the group ahead of time.
Step 7: Get Talking!
That's it. Now that your group is formed, start talking. Share tips, work through issues and learn together.
Mutual support groups can be a great way to discuss, normalize, and overcome some of the challenges caring professionals face. I have been part of several such groups and have found all of them to be helpful in there own way.
Just remember that a mutual support group is not a replacement for professional therapy. If you are struggling with stress, compassional fatigue, depression, anxiety or other mental health issue, always seek the advice and support of a professional.
Have you started your own mutual support group? How has it worked for you? Let us know in the comments.
Not able to find a group you're comfortable with in your own area? You could also try forming an online group and meeting via skype or video chat. We're working on organizing some groups of our own. Click here to learn more and sign up.