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The Relationship Between Empathy and Work-Related Stress in a Sample of Child and Youth Care Counsellors Open Access


Other title
Vicarious Trauma
Compassion Fatigue
Child and Youth Care
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Barford, Sean W
Supervisor and department
Dr. William Whelton, Department of Educational Psychology
Examining committee member and department
Dr. Cheryl Poth, Department of Educational Psychology
Dr. Michelle Inness, Department of Strategic Management and Organization
Dr. Martin Mrazik, Department of Educational Psychology
Dr. Derek Truscott, Department of Educational Psychology
Dr. Daniel W. Cox (External; UBC), Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education
Department of Educational Psychology
Counselling Psychology
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Empathy has long been considered integral in the development of the therapeutic relationship and an essential aspect of effective psychotheraputic treatment (Rogers, 1959). Empathy has been ascribed many definitions, but it is generally agreed upon that it is a multidimensional construct that includes both intellectual and emotional elements, as well as the ability to regulate one’s emotions in the face of difficult material (Decety, 2011; Gerdes, Segal & Lietz, 2010). Recently, the use of empathy in a therapeutic context has been included as a predisposing risk factor in the development of secondary stress reactions, specifically vicarious trauma (VT) and compassion fatigue (CF). This is a troubling claim and, considering the importance that empathy plays in all helping professions, one that requires further research. This dissertation is organized into three papers, which in their entirety provide a detailed examination of empathy in the helping professions and support our understanding of the relationship between empathy and secondary stress. The first paper provides a state- of-the-art review of empathy research as it pertains to the helping professions. The second paper tests the assumption put forward by VT and CF researchers that empathy is a causal factor in the development of secondary stress reactions among those working with trauma victims. In this study, 200 child and youth care counsellors from 21 agencies across Alberta were recruited and completed comprehensive research packages. Path analysis was used to examine the relationship between personality variables, aspects of empathy, and VT and CF. Interestingly, empathy was not found to be a significant causal factor in the model, as VT and CF were best predicted by a combination of personality variables and emotional volatility. Finally, in the third paper, a mixed-methods sequential design was used to describe the experiences of a select group of child and youth care counsellors (CYCCs) working with high risk youth in residential care. Specifically, the participants needed to have at least average levels of cognitive and emotional empathy and average to low average levels of secondary traumatic stress (STS) to be included in the study. The CYCCs participated in a focus group and were asked to describe the advantages (and potential disadvantages) of using empathy in their work. The results of this study included four themes all related to relationship development: (1) establishing an initial connection, (2) feeling understood, (3) safe and supportive environment, (4) facilitating positive change.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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