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

  • Author / Creator
    Barford, Sean W
  • 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.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
    • Department of Educational Psychology
  • Specialization
    • Counselling Psychology
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
    • Dr. William Whelton, Department of Educational Psychology
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Dr. Derek Truscott, Department of Educational Psychology
    • Dr. Michelle Inness, Department of Strategic Management and Organization
    • Dr. Daniel W. Cox (External; UBC), Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education
    • Dr. Cheryl Poth, Department of Educational Psychology
    • Dr. Martin Mrazik, Department of Educational Psychology