Updated: Mar 23
Throughout recent years there has been a surge in harassment, including sexual violence, directed at social workers. This increase in violence has contributed to higher turnover rates. Workers have been left with often traumatic experiences surrounding Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (SHIW) that often aren’t debriefed enough. There is limited engagement in preventative measures.
When engaging with service users, the language we use and how we talk about the individuals we work with is important. Boundaries are essential to reducing vicarious trauma for front-line workers working with survivors. Sometimes we can feel guilty we put up our boundaries, but it is imperative to institute boundaries for the health and safety of both the support person and the survivor.
When we think about preventative measures, it is important to consider the aspects of each service user's life experiences and how that could contribute to SHIW. These considerations are important because instead of policing behaviour, we can help collectively create safer preventative measures that encompass equality and a welcoming attitude for any service user. If a service user does not feel welcome or safe within our environments, that is part of our job to help dismantle any patriarchal, colonial systems of oppression that may be creating hostility or perpetuating SHIW. This is why it is important to not just view these situations as “Social Worker versus Service User Relating to SHIW” but more in nature of how we can learn from one another to prevent SHIW. For example, the service provider may learn ways of anti-oppression and trauma-informed practices that can help prevent hostility within organizations. While service users are equipped with accessible and very clear outlines of how we expect (not expect to police but treat one another), including but not limited to their social workers and peers.
For social work students and social workers, preventative measures for SHIW, incorporating anti-oppression and trauma-informed practice, would have to involve a conceptual rewiring of the way in which we think about violence and its systemic roots. Violence manifests in diverse ways. Due to the nature of social services in Canada and how greatly underfunded we are, it would be hard to get to the root of every single individualistic, systemically rooted manifestation of violence due to generations of marginalization and oppression for many folks. This is why it is important to look at what we can do now to keep ourselves and service users safe surrounding SHIW. Here are some examples of what we can do within reason right now:
● Set boundaries with service users or managers/colleagues in and outside of the social work setting.
● Educate ourselves on how violence manifests in various ways to try to understand on a person-centered level how service providers can work collaboratively against SHIW.
● Educate service users using accessible boundaries and approaches that could help mitigate SHIW while working alongside them.
● Organizational level training for all service providers as they enter the workforce on anti-oppressive practice and hands-on violence and SHIW prevention.
● Holding space within management positions regarding social work to debrief and mitigate any situations regarding SHIW.
Overall, SHIW, with respect to social work students and social workers in the field, does not get brought up enough. This would be due to the lack of anti-oppressive skills being presented within vulnerable communities or organizations for service users, which could perpetuate or create hostility towards service providers as we work under a capitalistic agenda. Social work students are also not being trained enough to prevent workplace violence through hands-on training. Society often depends on social workers and the community in which we work to help fight for justice and vulnerable populations, but where do we draw boundaries toward working with service users regarding SHIW? This topic needs to be addressed more within general society and in universities, colleges, workplaces, training days, and organizations in a non-discriminatory fashion using a trauma-informed framework for service users and providers.
Dorothy Van Soest, Shirley Bryant, Violence Reconceptualized for Social Work: The Urban Dilemma, Social Work, Volume 40, Issue 4, July 1995, Pages 549–557, https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/40.4.549
Dumbrill, G. C., & Yee, J., Y. (2018). Anti-Oppressive Social Work: Ways of Knowing, Talking, and Doing. Oxford University Press, Toronto, Canada.
Tiesman HM, Hendricks SA, Wiegand DM, Lopes-Cardozo B, Rao CY, Horter L, Rose CE, Byrkit R. Workplace Violence and the Mental Health of Public Health Workers During COVID-19. Am J Prev Med. 2023 Mar;64(3):315-325. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2022.10.004. Epub 2022 Nov 14. PMID: 36464557; PMCID: PMC9659550.