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Wellness as a Framework for Agencies, Social Work and Clients
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Wellness as a Framework for Agencies, Social Work and Clients

Onaje Muid, MSW, LMHC, CASAC, FDLC, Clinical Associate Director, Reality House, Inc.

Editor’s Note: Chapter Staff had the opportunity to attend a presentation given by Onaje Muid at a meeting of agency executives. Mr. Muid spoke compellingly about the legacies of historic trauma in this country, described their pervasive impact — particularly on communities of color, and elaborated on how their effects manifest in agency settings. Mr. Muid posed that a framework of wellness is needed on the individual, organizational, and societal levels to prompt a healing process so that we might serve clients and communities in a more effective, equitable, and humane way. Currents invited Mr. Muid to contribute an article to complement the NASW Standards for Professional Social Work and Self-Care, which is centrally featured in the November 2010 issue.

Self-Care in Difficult Times

Not exempt from fiscal constraints, social workers and their agencies are negatively impacted by fiscal down turns. In fact, due to the symbiotic relationship between the social welfare system and the political economy, social work may be disproportionately impacted as compared to the non-helping professions. The consequences, in terms of professional burdens (larger caseloads with newly-increased client populations and unhealthy work environments), coupled with the social costs such as social disintegration (divorces, strained family relations, etc.) and social dislocation, renders our field more susceptible to the impact of multiple stressors, often referred to as ecological overstress. Social causation theory “suggests that insecure and stressful economic and social conditions strongly increase the probability that a given individual experiencing them will develop social problems or mental disorders” (Barker, 1999, p. 448).

Using our tools, we start with what we know. “Understanding human behavior in the social environment”, in addition to being the hallmark of our profession, is a window to understanding not only the clients we serve, but also ourselves — how we function in agencies, fields of practice, and in our profession-at-large under various social conditions.

Employed social workers are forced to face the imbalance of resources (i.e. less pay, less quality time and highly pressured supervision) against increasing demands for agency production. Those social workers who have lost their jobs may be strapped with debt and dealing with the possible loss of a home, and are facing the frightening possibility of becoming the person in need on the other side of the desk — a daunting proposition! Whether currently employed or seeking employment, all social workers can benefit from focusing on the practice of professional self care to assist us as we adjust to new and difficult circumstances.

A New Paradigm of Wellness —Where Do We Begin?

“Let it Begin with Me…From Counselor Wellness to Client Success” — so read the theme of the Queens Consortium on Alcohol and Substance Abuse (QCASA) Second Annual Symposium, September 30, 2010. Social workers, like John McAteer, LCSW and Beth Covelli, LCSW-R — Co-Chairs of QCASA — are making significant contributions in turning our attention to the essential subject of self-care for social workers in an effort to birth a new paradigm of wellness in our profession.

With the leadership of Kathleen Caggiano-Siino, Executive Deputy Director, the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) has also embraced such thinking. OASAS believes that wellness is instrumental in whole health and will enhance long-term recovery. (See the OASAS website for details.) With the goal of making the addictions field “a field of choice”, it created a Talent Management Committee, including the Organization and Work Experience Subcommittee. The Committee operates from the working definition of a healthy organization as one that “cultivates a culture of respect within a community that supports personal and professional growth, fairness, open communications and shared values.” This represents the new thinking about what agencies must do to bring themselves into a new order of wellness — an order which sustains balance, harmony, justice and reciprocity, also known as “Maat”— a concept rooted in Egyptian traditions.

The Green Cross Academy of Traumatology (GCAT) has identified the importance of wellness for helping professionals; social workers should attend to their own physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs as a way of ensuring high quality services for those who look to them for support as a human being. Furthermore, the Academy has established Standards for Establishing and Maintaining Wellness, in which the first step is a commitment to self care – something to be done in a formal fashion with tangible commitments including deadlines, goals, and strategies. (See the GCAT website for details.) However, beyond taking care of oneself, wellness requires that we examine and restructure our agency’s environment. One example of such a re-arrangement is Reality House Inc.

Wellness as the Number One Organizational Priority

Often social workers proclaim that a parallel process is at work between the supervisor and counselor, and the counselor and client. However isn’t it also present in all the relationships inside an organization? Reality House Inc (RHI) sought to absorb the greatest benefit from this social dynamic by using it to re-establish its priorities.

The premise used was that clients would experience the best from their counselors if the counselors were experiencing a well environment at the agency. Furthermore, RHI asked: Is an agency that promotes wellness as its number one priority more likely to have an end result of wellness for clients and staff than if it did not? Also, what does wellness look like in an organizational setting?

Employees at RHI are now more inclined to speak about how the work environment is negatively affecting them and with that openness, supervision becomes a real assessment rather than a perfunctory one. Staff at RHI have learned from multiple traditions to help break down barriers between clients and workers. Based on Native American traditions, the organization has established an InterTribal Healing Circle, open to clients, staff and the community, fostering a healing (versus pathology) paradigm. Additionally, drawing from the Lakota tradition that we are all related (Mitakuye Oyasin), counselors at RHI think of their clients as “relatives.”

After wellness, RHI established priorities on social justice, cultural competency, clinical excellence, social constructed supervision, and informed trauma services. Additionally, family strength modeling tilts their practice towards a healing modality to un-do racism, transcend historical trauma, and promote family and community resiliency (Brave Heart, 2003). Even when agencies embrace a wellness framework, it is important to remember that they exist in the professional/social environment and will experience the consequences of the larger society.

Barriers to Embracing Social Wellness as a National Goal

The reduction of budgets to human service agencies and the ripple effects to staff, clients and their families are widespread and deep. The cumulative effect is staggering and elusive for two reasons. The first is that the profession and society have not fully embraced social wellness as a national goal, as evidenced in this country’s refusal to ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (See The second reason is that there is no measurement system to capture the social health reality that the condition besets (Miringoff, 1999).

Wellness is not partial; if it exists, it must exist in a total reality. The wellness agenda in this framework embraces the person, the family, the community, and the nation, as well as examining how institutional racism impacts all social realities. (See for details).

An Invitation to Be Well Together

This article is an invitation to embrace wellness as a personal, professional, agency, community and national norm. Let’s be well together and realize the abundance that life offers. This can only be obtained only if we affirm:

I am healing.
You are healing.
We are healing.
Our world is healing.


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