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The Pain Of Helping Sob Stories, Job Woes Stress Out Social Workers

The woman at Susan Engel’s desk had just applied for help with her energy bills when she divulged that she and her two children had run out of food stamps.

Engel picked up the phone and arranged for her to pick up a box of food at the food bank.

The next client was a debt-ridden divorced man needing firewood to warm his manufactured home this winter.

“I don’t want to take any handouts,” the bearded man said as he hunched over his application.

As coordinator of energy assistance and Project Share in North Idaho, Engel hears a lot of sad stories. She’s not alone.

The woeful tales that cross the desks of social workers cause more depression and jangled nerves than exist in other professions, a recent study by four University of Idaho counseling students showed.

But on Thursday, Engel was the exception. Bubbly and cheerful, she energetically helped her visitors with their paperwork and problems.

That’s because she had her Wednesday night dose of dancing - her coping mechanism.

Without it, she becomes depressed, she said.

“I mean I get out there and I go full force,” said the glowing Engel. “I dance five hours straight. When I come off the dance floor, I’m covered in sweat.”

Her colleague, Anne Swift over in the weatherization division, does “inane” crossword puzzles to get her mind off her work.

When things get real bad, she’ll call her mother to unload her anxieties, or she’ll simply cry.

“Sometimes the most difficult part is caring,” Swift said, pausing from a stack of paperwork. “If you didn’t care, it wouldn’t be so stressful.”

A sample group of 27 North Idaho social workers reported significantly higher levels of stress than a comparison group of 27 other area professionals in the UI study.

The student researchers concluded that “for those working in community agencies, the problems of addressing social problems is likely exacerbated by inadequate funding, training, support and salaries.”

Social workers were more likely to skip breakfast, feel tired and hopelessly behind, suffer headaches, and exhibit other symptoms of stress, the study showed.

“Agency paraprofessionals are on the front line, the gatekeepers between the people who need help and the resources,” said Angie Clancy, a social worker at Kootenai Medical Center and one of the authors of the study.

But, she added, “nobody’s really interested in this population, so they haven’t really been studied. They’re not a money-generating group of people.”

The study results confirmed what the four students - social workers themselves - already had witnessed.

Brad Bruhn, social service director at Pinewood Care Center, knows some staff members at the center have sought counseling for their stress.

Bruhn listed his own symptoms as “arguing with my wife for no reason, getting upset easier with my peers, feeling like I’ve got tons and tons of work to do and no time to do it.”

One agency declined to participate in the study, conducted about a month ago, “because their staff was so under stress they felt it might skew the research project,” said UI student Gary Domanski, director of North Idaho Community Action Agency.

Winter is a particularly hard time for social workers because the needs are more pronounced.

“We have extremely high case loads in the winter months,” said Jean Rucker, a supervisor with the Department of Health and Welfare.

In addition to heavy case loads and limited resources, government agencies have to worry about increasingly complex regulations and public perceptions.

“No other agency in our state is reviewed as much as our department,” Rucker said. “You can have a 5 percent error rate, and the public just goes ballistic.”

But most of the people Rucker and other social workers see really do need the help, they say.

The most frustrating case can be when a truly needy person will not accept help.

Swift recently had a client who was at risk of freezing to death.

Her furnace didn’t work. Social workers brought the elderly woman blankets and space heaters.

The Community Action Agency wanted to fix the furnace, but the tenant apparently feared the wrath of her landlady.

“The minute she heard the landlady had to get involved, she said, ‘Oh, it’s OK. The furnace just came back on,”’ Swift said. “She was so agitated and so upset, we had to just back off.”

Everyone in the agency agonized over that case, Swift said.

“All the times you want to walk out, you pull your hair out, and you want to just quit, the bottom line is, you’re helping the community,” Swift said. “Every person who is here wouldn’t be here if they really didn’t care.”

MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition

Cut in Spokane edition