By: Laura Arnold, Ph.D., CFLE and Kate Dumanian

Laura Arnold, Ph.D. is a Technical Specialist at ICF where she works on research and evaluation projects related to adolescent and family health, healthy marriages and relationships, and effective programming.
Kate Dumanian is a Research Assistant at ICF where she works on several projects related to adolescent health, responsible fatherhood, and family stability.


The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.

For November, In Focus is sharing information on ways that relationship education can be integrated into all aspects of human services– all posts are focusing on work that ICF has done as part of the National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families (Resource Center). The Resource Center helps agencies develop the capacity to promote healthy relationship skills in a way that meets both their needs and those of the families they serve. As a service of the Office of Family Assistance, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Resource Center supports the integration of healthy marriage and relationship education into targeted safety-net service delivery systems as part of a comprehensive strategy to strengthen families and promote family self-sufficiency.


This post focuses on strategies for self-care among human service providers and administrators. Human service staff are exposed to constant emotionally demanding situations that can eventually impinge on their own health, personal relationships, and ability to serve their clients. This can lead to what is commonly referred to as compassion fatigue. Human service providers and administrators also face high amounts of job-related stress, especially when helping with children and families that have or are experiencing abuse or neglect. This work can put staff at risk of secondary trauma or secondary traumatic stress.

Indirect traumas can come on as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Perhaps human service providers or administrators have noticed a preoccupation with trauma or less of an ability to concentrate or, maybe, are experiencing feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and depression. These can be signs of compassion fatigue, along with physical ailments such as a suppressed immune system, rapid heartbeat, or difficulty sleeping. Fatigue or trauma can easily become part of a negative feedback loop that proves detrimental to a provider’s emotional state, relationships, and eventually, their work.

Self-care is one way to help combat the negative effects of compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. Self-care looks different for everyone, yet there are a number of strategies that others can use to prevent burnout and maintain healthy relationships with others. It is thus imperative to their well-being and that of their clients that both watch for signs of compassion fatigue and routinely engage in practices of self-care.


Tips for Self-Care

Specifically, those who provide services to individuals and families can take specific measures to care for themselves and strengthen their own relationships as they work to strengthen others’ lives.

  • Create a transition from work to home – Get into the habit of establishing a routine to mark your transition home. Possible ideas include taking a few moments alone after work each day to meditate, making a playlist of relaxing music or carrying a book to enjoy for the commute home, keeping exercise clothes on hand to go for a jog, putting on a cozy sweater the second you arrive home, calling a different friend or family member to say hello, or turning off your phone for a set amount of time to decompress. No matter what you decide, marking the transition from work to home will allow you to consciously shift from helping others, to focusing on yourself and your own relationships.


  • Learn to say “no” – Saying “no” can be a challenge, we get it! But choosing self-care over adding another project to your workload gives you time to prioritize your own relationships and happiness, while also ensuring that you can give your full attention to the families and individuals you already serve.


  • Find time for yourself every day – We know it is hard to make yourself a priority, but consider this scenario. You are on a flight, the cabin pressure drops, and your oxygen mask comes out. Do you first put the mask on the person next to you, or put on your own mask first? You take care of yourself first so you can appropriately care for others. Similarly, we each need to remember to put on our own oxygen mask before trying to help others! Take time daily for self-renewal and to recharge.


  • Establish a regular sleep and exercise routine – Proper amounts of rest and physical exercise are critical to sustaining a healthy balance with all of the demands life throws our way. Research supports that on average people require 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, and should strive for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week.


Effectively serving individuals and families begins with taking measures to care for yourself. Compassion fatigue can affect not only your own personal health, but also the health of relationships, and your ability to effectively serve families and individuals seeking your assistance. Self-care likely looks different for everyone. It may revolve around strengthening your personal and professional relationships through basic interpersonal and coping skills, such as healthy conflict resolution, healthy communication, and financial management. It may involve establishing a meditation or exercise routine or ensuring that you have time each night to spend with family. No matter what method of self-care you practice, putting your own health and happiness first is hard. When it feels difficult, remind yourself that self-care is crucial for maintaining a happy private life, and ensuring a long, successful career of helping others.

To learn about ways you can prevent or address secondary trauma, this resource provides several helpful links with more information. You can also learn more about strategies to integrate relationship education into personal and professional development by visiting the Resource Center’s Library, checking out the Virtual Training Center for a number of free, research-based online courses, or clicking the link for Social service providers have families too: Healthy marriage and relationship education as personal and professional development, from which this blog was adapted.


Want to read more? Click the link for this Resource Center research-to-practice brief, which this blog was adapted from, or browse the Resource Center’s Library for more research on relationship education. The Resource Center’s Virtual Training Center also offers a number of free, research-based courses available online for both service providers and families.