Victoria Bennett | August 2023
As an adviser at Citizen's Advice, I entered this service with a strong desire to make a difference. My journey began during my time as a university student when I faced homelessness with my family due to the illegal practices of my landlord during the Covid-19 pandemic. Encouraged by my professor, I joined Citizen's Advice as a volunteer, and later, I became a paid staff member.
Before this role, I worked as a care worker, enduring poor working conditions and receiving wages that barely reached the minimum wage threshold. The physical and emotional toll, along with a sense of being unsupported, led me to seek a change and find meaning in serving my community.
At Citizen's Advice Stevenage, from the moment I walked through the door, I found a supportive and caring team, working together as a family to serve the community we hold dear. For over two years, I have felt immense joy and satisfaction in getting up every day and going to work to help the people who come to us for help.
Fast forward to now, two years of being on the frontline, witnessing the ongoing debt, crisis, and energy-related challenges faced by our clients, I found myself questioning my enthusiasm for this work. Did I want to serve the community anymore? I had to confront the human cost of the "cost of living crisis" on the advisers providing support to ever-increasing numbers of people. Individuals trapped in desperate situations. If I was going to stay in the service, I needed to address why I was feeling this way.
This crisis is not just about financial struggles; it takes a significant toll on people's mental health and overall well-being. Taking some time to reflect, I was overwhelmed with the growing number of people coming to our service in desperate situations. The level of expectation on the service, that we could make everything better for them in an instant; and provide housing, lower energy bills, cheaper food and more cash. I was demotivated by the lack of options available to those I support and angry at the reality that I would need to advice people on their most suitable negative budget option and increasingly our advice is no longer enough to get people back on their feet.
Before the cost of living crisis, the average person in debt Citizens Advice helped had £33 left at the end of the month after paying for essential costs — now they have an average shortfall of £36 per month. This is a problem affecting every corner of our community; people in full-time work, nurses, homeowners, care workers. People with a steady, normal income who just can’t make ends meet.
We not only help people find their way forward during difficult situations, but also identify and tackle the underlying causes of their problems. To do this as advisers we establish meaningful relationships with our clients, after all we are looking into every aspect of their lives. A byproduct of this is the creation of a trusted space for people to offload their trauma, worries and anxieties.
We should not be surprised that people share these things with us, the human cost of the “cost of living crisis” which is no longer a crisis but a way of life. Where people in more desperate situations are seeing no way out of the situations they are in and have to seek more support than ever before. People are sharing their deepest vulnerabilities as a way of seeking further support.
With a service, that is seeing an average of 400 clients a week that understandably takes it’s toll on naturally, compassionate people.
Following reflection, I asked myself, how do I fix this, well, simply put I can’t not on my own. Long-term changes are needed to help people out of the cost-of-living crisis. Government needs to think about change at a policy and a system level to help the millions in negative budgets - these changes take time, but a starting point is targeted support for energy costs and fixing benefit deductions.
I have researched compassion fatigue, a form of stress that arises from providing support to individuals who have experienced trauma or are enduring substantial emotional strain, the most likely cause of my current distress. Something that all advisers should be aware of.
I have decided to accept the elements of my work that are out of my control, I can’t change Government policy to achieve better outcomes for my clients, as much as I’d like to. But I can continue to raise evidence that can be used locally and nationally to highlight the issues I am seeing to key stakeholders and government. I can also continue to have a compassionate ear and use the resources I do have to assist everyone. I am surrounded by a supportive team at Citizens Advice Stevenage and have access to resources that support my mental health and wellbeing. I can use my support network personally and professionally to ensure my mental health is handling the pressures so I can be the best version of myself both at work and at home.
Some resources I came across to help advisers on the frontline:
Able Futures can help you manage your mental health at work so you can enjoy more good days. https://able-futures.co.uk/individuals
The Wellbeing Service: offers free and confidential talking therapy and practical support for Hertfordshire residents experiencing a wide range of mental health problems such as: worry, low mood, insomnia and stress. https://www.hpft.nhs.uk/services/community-services/wellbeing-service
Vicarious trauma: signs and strategies for coping. https://www.bma.org.uk/advice-and-support/your-wellbeing/vicarious-trauma/vicarious-trauma-signs-and-strategies-for-coping
Also check out the support via your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if you have one.