Finding strength in compassion: domestic abuse service providers reflect


Dr Marian Duggan, University of Kent
Dr Camille Stengel, Nesta*
Alana Pollock, University of Kent

*Research was carried out while working at the University of Greenwich. Nesta has no affiliation with this research.

Domestic Abuse Response during COVID-19

The COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 brought overnight changes in working conditions for millions of people all over the world. Adapting to this ‘new normal’ was nothing short of a challenge for most; while we clapped on our doorsteps in solidarity with frontline workers, many of us also hurried to make space to work from home, trying to find quiet corners for Zoom calls while juggling the demands of home life, from increased caring responsibilities.

Domestic abuse service providers (DASPs) were one group of frontline workers who had to navigate remote working during lockdown home-life as they continued acting as a source of safety and security for those at elevated risk of harm. Unsurprisingly, with people unable to leave their homes and find respite from abusive situations, UK domestic abuse charities reported surging numbers of current and former victims accessing services, with spikes of up to 200% reported. DASPs were faced with the unenviable task of managing this growth in demand, coupled alongside acclimatising to the new design and delivery of their service in the wake of covid-related restrictions.

While the news headlines rightly focused on the risk for domestic abuse victims, the conditions and capacity of service providers to support growing demand were largely absent from this concern. Ensuring vital domestic abuse support and assistance can be a challenging feat without the added difficulties of having to undertake such important work via a smartphone or computer screen rather than face to face.

Our Research

As domestic abuse researchers, we were concerned about the impact of lockdown working conditions on DASPs’ personal and professional wellbeing during this chaotic time. We were aware of pre-pandemic studies which have highlighted the high rates of stress, burnout, and vicarious traumatisation among frontline crisis practitioners, as well as the obvious concern for domestic abuse victims’ safety during the lockdowns. In tandem with the growing focus on frontline workers’ mental health and sustainability throughout the pandemic, we sought to understand how DASPs coped (or didn’t cope) during the lockdowns while continuing to provide essential services to people in crisis situations.

In this blog we summarise some of our research findings obtained via semi-structured interviews with 18 DASPs based at one charity in South-East England. Key research areas of focus included: how DASPs coped with the massive influx of cases and clients; how they

sustained quality care remotely; what effect this had on their own lives and emotional well- being; what they learned from the experience; and what they might do differently in the future if faced with similar circumstances. We finish this blog by reflecting on how our findings can apply to the current funding climate for domestic abuse charities. More information on this research and our outputs can be found on our project website.

Adapting through Adversity

Domestic abuse service providers initially struggled with the overwhelming increase in workloads coupled with the transition to online communications. Many expressed concerns about the effect working from home would have on their relationships with their housemates, partners, or children. They also described general technological concerns relating to access, proficiency, and reliability. As well, DASPs expressed initial feelings of anxiety and guilt, noting that the pandemic had shaken their confidence in being able to provide the high standards of support with which they were familiar. This was important, as they felt a heightened level of responsibility for the people in their care, many of whom were trapped in unsafe situations with abusers for longer than usual periods of time due to the lockdown restrictions. The changes in risk and safety were coupled with added difficultes for DASPs being able to assess these remotely:

I couldn’t read body language, so I wasn’t sure for those quieter members, where I thought: mmm…. I’m watching them, are they flicking on their phone, are they looking anxious, are they in danger? I couldn’t read any of the warning signs

Despite this unease, the DASPs we spoke to described how they adopted an agentic ‘can-do’ attitude towards the unique challenges they faced as the pandemic continued. While the preliminary challenges of lockdown still existed, DASPs became self-forgiving, self-preserving, and self-compassionate as they recognised the importance of protecting their time and emotional capacity. DASPs were able to establish personal and professional boundaries that helped them remain resilient, such as by letting go of the desire to be ‘perfect’ and shifting their measurements of success:

You can feel like you’re not, you’re never doing enough. So, having that internal voice to say, ‘Actually you’re doing enough. You need to stop now because you, you’re not gonna have anything left if you carry on’. So, it’s not about saying you can’t cope, but that you have to respect your own limitations really, and take notice of your stress levels.

These reflections indicated that they had positively reframed their attitudes, reminding themselves that they were only human, and they were doing the best they could in such unprecedented circumstances. Importantly, they recognised that what they were doing mattered – helping people who were victims of domestic abuse.

Compassion Satisfaction through Client and Colleague Engagement

Many of our research participants indicated the positive boost they experienced upon receiving messages from clients thanking them for the vital work they were doing. While receiving positive feedback was not unusual, hearing this during such a fraught time indicated to DASPs that their clients recognised and valued the extra work undertaken to ensure people were being supported. On reflection, our participants were impressed by their ability to rapidly adapt

and respond to uncertainty while continuing to provide a necessary and high-quality service to their clients:

We couldn’t help but feel that, ‘Oh, are we really giving them a good service?’ Especially as our wait lists are really, really long, unfortunately, ’cause we have so many referrals, so some people have waited for such a long time then all we can offer them is, like, this. I think we just felt a bit of professional guilt in that sense. So then when people are actually like, ‘No, you know, we’ve really appreciated it and we’re so grateful for it’ then you kind of feel, OK, maybe we just have to shift our perspective of what it is actually that we’re offering during this time, and what we are offering is helpful. It might be different, but that’s OK, it’s still helpful.

For me, the most rewarding [part] was the continuation of the engagement. That, for me, spoke volumes because these are clients that have disengaged from services before, but actually I’ve still got them on my books. They’re still engaging. I saw some positive outcomes, yeah, and it was also being able to adapt to the situation at that time.

Being part of a supportive and nurturing work environment was also a vital aspect allowing DASPs to remain resilient. Our participants reported that being surrounded by like-minded others and a positive organisational culture reinforced their optimistic outlook. Self-care was frequently discussed and encouraged across the different levels and initiatives in the charity. DASPs were reminded to prioritise their own mental health, take breaks, be mindful of symptoms of burnout and fatigue, and to seek support or act accordingly:

… we are all empathetic people, I mean, we do listen to people so we know what’s out there and we know our people are struggling, so we help ourselves as well as others around us. So, I think that’s probably just, because the organisation is who we are, you know, caring? It’s not a corporate site, is it, that’s just ‘do-do-do’. So, I think a lot of that is, well it is – everyone who’s in there is caring, basically, yeah.

Though physically isolated from colleagues, our DASP participants retained a sense of camaraderie by scheduling remote debriefs and informal catch ups where they could share feelings of vulnerability, confide in others, and seek advice. Maintaining these supportive working relationships during the pandemic was especially crucial to protect against any negative feelings, lessen experiences of isolation, and contribute to their feelings of resilience and growth. Similarly, collegial support provided the opportunity to witness healthy coping mechanisms, which gave others ‘permission’ to imitate these methods and do the same. The resulting impact was a successful, sustained service in which our participants felt invested:

I felt like we really played a part in the pandemic, I have to say and I feel very proud to be part of [the charity] and proud of who we are and what we’re doing. … So yeah, that for me was a real positive, feeling part of a team that’s making a difference. Yes, it’s been hard work, but you know that’s a major positive for me, yeah.

Lessons for the future

While our research focused on DASPs’ experiences during the covid lockdown periods, our findings indicate the key characteristics informing supportive domestic abuse services that benefit both victims and the specialists working alongside them.

Undertaking trauma-informed work with victims of violence can leave practitioners vulnerable to secondary traumatic stress, vicarious traumatisation, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Our research illustrated that, when given the capacity to be properly supported by their specialist organisation and colleagues, DASPs drew strength and resilience in the face of adversity, managing to thrive personally and professionally.

Domestic abuse remains a high-profile political and public health priority, yet the legacy of austerity measures has made a significant impact on the ability for service providers to meet spikes in demand for support. In 2021, the government released funding to train hundreds of new domestic abuse specialists, many of whom will be deployed throughout the public sector (i.e., housing, welfare, children’s services etc.) as in-house service providers.While this diversification of support will be of benefit to victims, our research highlights some areas of concern for the welfare of those providing these vital support services.

Domestic abuse practitioners who work independently of domestic abuse organisations risk being isolated from colleagues who can truly understand and relate to the unique experiences involved in providing specialist support to victims. While training new specialists is important to ensure the safeguarding and welfare of domestic abuse victims, our research has demonstrated that the emotional and mental welfare of domestic abuse practitioners needs to be a political priority, reinforced with adequate, sustainable funding and resources to ensure specialist supervision and support as part of efforts to sustain and retain these high-quality professionals.

About the Authors

Dr Marian Duggan is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Kent. Her research on gender-based violence focuses on preventative policies and socio-legal responses to victims.

Dr Camille Stengel was a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Greenwich when this research was conducted. Camille now works at the social innovation agency Nesta as Principal Researcher in the Chief Scientist Office.

Alana Pollock is a University of Kent Criminology Graduate who joined the project as a research assistant as her interests focus on sexual and domestic violence

This project was assisted with funding from the Universities of Kent and Greenwich.
DASP - Domestic Abuse Service Providers | 2023