Secondary trauma causing stress among foster carers, according to new study

Foster carers need more support to combat stress and burnout, according to the findings of a study by psychologists at Nottingham Trent University (NTU).

The research explored secondary traumatic stress (STS), which can be caused by the impact of supporting people who have experienced traumatic events, and burnout as two factors that can severely affect wellbeing.

More than 180 foster carers took part in a survey on levels of STS and burnout in their role. Protective factors were also assessed including compassion satisfaction - the positive experience of their work - empathy, resilience and self-care.

Findings showed that foster carers experience higher than average STS, suggesting they are affected by exposure to the trauma stories of their foster children. They also demonstrated high levels of burnout, which made a direct contribution to their STS. In addition, more than 75% of respondents reported instances of primary trauma - harm or threat of harm to themselves or their family within the context of the role.

Kay Bridger, lead author of the study and PhD researcher at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “Foster carers are increasingly in demand to offer a caring home to children and young people who have experienced the breakdown of their own home or who have been maltreated.

“Our study showed that many foster carers remain motivated despite stress, but for this caring role to be maintained their wellbeing needs to be taken care of. It can be a stressful role for many reasons, including behavioural issues of the children, but there has been little consideration of STS as an additional factor.

“The role of foster carers is very different to other helping professionals because it is home based, and so they have much less ability to set boundaries about when the role affects them, unlike nurses or social workers for instance who can draw a line under their work somewhat more easily.”

Self-care was found to affect STS outcomes, with the main forms of self-care mentioned by those surveyed including spending time with others, exercise and support, suggesting that foster carers would benefit from more assistance in building up resources which help them to withstand the stress of the role.

Kay added: “There are a number of recommendations which come from these findings. As well as capturing and monitoring primary trauma in the role, foster carers should be educated on the existence of secondary traumatic stress so they can recognise when they may need additional support.

“Importantly, burnout should be recognised as another role-related risk to wellbeing. In tackling this, there is no one size fits all approach to self-care, but rather training which helps foster carers identify how they maintain their own wellbeing, then creating policies which allow them time to pursue this, is an ideal approach.”

The research, Secondary Traumatic Stress in Foster Carers: Risk Factors and Implications for Intervention, has been published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies. It was carried out by Kay Bridger in conjunction with NTU Psychology colleagues, Dr Jens Binder and Dr Blerina Kellezi.


Notes to editors

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About Nottingham Trent University

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students. NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

The university has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

It is one of the largest UK universities. With nearly 32,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University contributes £900m to the UK economy every year. With an international student population of more than 3,000 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook

The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019. A total of 82% of its graduates go on to graduate entry employment or graduate entry education or training within six months of leaving. Student satisfaction is high: NTU achieved an 87% satisfaction score in the 2019 National Student Survey.

A total of 82% of its graduates go on to graduate entry employment or graduate entry education or training within six months of leaving. Student satisfaction is high: NTU achieved an 87% satisfaction score in the 2019 National Student Survey.

NTU is also one of the UK’s most environmentally friendly universities, containing some of the sector’s most inspiring and efficient award-winning buildings.

NTU is home to world-class research, and won The Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 – the highest national honour for a UK university. It recognised the University’s pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage; enable safer production of powdered infant formula; and combat food fraud.

Paper on Secondary Trauma in Foster Carers

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