Cold indifference – new normal for community services?

December 6th, 2019  |  Published in Bullying & Power abuse, Guest posts

Guest blogger Dr Lorraine Harrison…I’ve seen a lot in my thirty plus years as a social worker, and have some scars to show for it. Much of my psychological injury has come from cold indifference within organisations. Current funding models entangle workers, and clients, in number-crunching systems that are inadequate and damaging for all concerned.

Cold indifference 1

2013 PhD thesis on worker stress

I completed my PhD on workers’ experience of job stress in the community sector in 2013. Workers described clear evidence of psychological damage from within their organisations.

Cold indifference and the heat of the kitchen I called my thesis “Feeling the Heat” because the problem of worker stress is too often seen as belonging to the worker, who should “get out of the kitchen if they can’t stand the heat”. Once the worker becomes ‘the problem’, there’s no need to consider workplace culture, workloads, or power imbalances between workers and their organisations.

Nothing to see here, in other words…Onto the next funding proposal!

Recent experience of cold indifference

I’m calling this article “Cold indifference” because that’s how the response from the organisation felt in my latest job. It also reflects the view I’ve formed over recent years of the general response to workers in the face of increasing pressures to do more and more with less and less in terms of time, resources, and support.

My latest role was in a trial service in an area related to family violence.  None of the relevant protocols aimed at keeping clients and workers physically and psychologically safe were in place. Nor was the organisation interested in my views, as the worker on the ground, about what was feasible in terms of workload or what was needed to protect the safety of all involved.

I felt like the lonely Sherpa, who climbs up the treacherous mountain to single-handedly help the injured down to base camp, only to go straight back up and do it all again.

For the clients’ sake

Working with the clients taught me a lot, and I developed ways of making the best of the situation for all involved.  I read extensively on my days off, reflected on my practice, and consulted outside agencies and their workers.

I worked alongside the clients to make them as safe as possible given the horrific circumstances they were in. Most were facing physical, financial and/or psychological abuse. Some were under very serious physical threat. Some were at risk of losing their homes. Most had additional issues. They came from many cultural communities.

What about support for the worker?

Lack of worker supportWas I given adequate debriefing, regular clinical supervision, and peer support? Was I part of a team? Was my wellbeing as a worker of interest?

Sadly, and emphatically, no, no, and no.  And yet, these provisions are part of the protocols developed by Domestic Violence Victoria in response to the occupational health and safety requirements of organisations.

I was a lone worker. My manager was located elsewhere and was not from the team that included other family violence workers. I therefore also had limited opportunities for informal debriefing.

Nine months into my role, and after many requests from me, the organisation did agree to provide clinical supervision every three weeks.

It was too little, too late.

Until the end I believe I demonstrated good faith, cared for the clients, and wanted the program to succeed.

Safety for workers and clients

I was pressured from the outset to meet clients in their homes – the same homes where many of the perpetrators of violence lived.

Worker safetyThis practice was unsafe for me and for the client.

“Some jobs present such a high level of risk that workers should not be required to do the work alone,” according to Work Safe Victoria. “Occupations where violence has occurred before, or where no information is available fall into this category.”

The longer I was in the role, the more I questioned the expectation of home visits.  My manager responded that “maybe you’re not cut out for the job”. This did work to silence me for a while, despite my training, qualifications, and decades of experience.

Such is the power of victim-blaming, served with a side of cold indifference!

The apparent lack of concern for safety, mine and clients’, was remarkable. Fortunately for me, I’ve been actively involved in occupational health and safety provisions in many workplaces as a staff representative and/or union delegate.  I drew on that experience to help me manage the situation by ignoring the pressure to do home visits and, instead, met clients in the workplace. It made me think, though, how much more harmful these expectations could be for less experienced workers.

Work Safe Victoria also recommends that organisations should consider providing “communication equipment to workers that is tested and maintained (e.g. duress alarms)”.

I was not offered a duress alarm.  Furthermore I discovered, not long before I left, that other workers, with whom I shared an office, were directed to take duress alarms to all home visits. Why I was not given a duress alarm? I don’t know, but this failure of the organisation has left me angry and extremely disappointed.

Unrealistic expectations

My job was two days a week. New referrals came in regularly and I was supposed to make contact within five working days. The only way to achieve this would have been to close off clients who still needed support.

The number of sessions should be limited, I was told. I should refer clients on, I was also told. To where,Cold indifference and number crunching however, was never clear. I was questioned about the length of time I spent with clients, with no recognition of their distress or risk of ongoing abuse and violence.

“Not all your clients are in crisis,” I was told. And, “we are all busy”.

I felt undermined professionally, and the reality of the work was unacknowledged. The number of clients who passed through the service seemed more important than whether they were helped. Again that sense of cold indifference prevailed.

My (unwelcome) evaluation of the role

I wrote about my “Sherpa experience”, and gave a copy to my manager, including suggestions for making the work more useful for clients and achievable for workers. I noted that it was an important time for evaluation as ongoing funding of the program was under review.

My ideas fell on deaf ears!Cold indifference and deaf ears

The extension of the funding appeared to be all that mattered. Organisations want funding, and funding bodies want programs that appear, on the numbers, to be ‘successful’. This accountancy model enables programs to continue on the ground that are inadequate for clients and damaging for workers.

In the end I felt I was up against my managers, human resource managers, and the CEO. They ‘suggested’ I leave early but gave two contradictory reasons. The inconsistencies were never clarified, and the approach then shifted to ‘concern’ for me. I felt they had closed ranks and were shutting me down without due process.

Systemic context of community organisations

Funding shortfalls and competitive tendering create pressure on agencies to extract the inhuman from ‘human resources’, while sidelining the impact of under-resourced programs on workers and clients.

Staff are poorly placed to speak out. Those with mortgages to pay and families to feed know they are dispensable. There are plenty more workers looking for positions.

Prevailing industrial conditions of casual work, contracts, and diminishing union membership create the conditions for compliant workers. Even permanent workers are hamstrung by the possibility of needing referees in the future.

The balance of power lies with the employers!

Parallel processes

I would describe my latest workplace as reflecting parallel processes, that interplay between clients, staff and organisations that can “replicate the very experiences that have proven to be so toxic for the people we are supposed to treat”.

My experiences that paralleled those of clients included lack of power, isolation, my concerns being trivialised, and my professional judgment being undermined. I was turned into ‘the problem’ and, in the final stages, given contradictory and evasive responses.

My managers, presumably, have ‘moved on’. On the other hand, I am left confused, angry, and psychologically damaged.

Does my experience of cold indifference resonate?

If you have a similar story, I would value hearing it. Does my description of cold indifference resonate for you? Are there other ways you would describe your experience in community organisations? What strategies have you used to survive? What could be done to improve the experience of workers in the community sector? What collective action might be possible?

If you’ve read this far, I would like to encourage you to join your union if you’re not already a member.  Unions are only as powerful as their membership. Collectivising to promote supportive workplaces and to challenge cold indifference must surely be more constructive than perpetuating the status quo.

Cold indifference 2

You can contact me (Lorraine Harrison) by leaving a comment below, or by email at

Lorraine biopic


I’ve been a social worker for more than thirty years in areas including public housing, sexual assault, family carers’ services, disability, aged care, and local government. I completed a four-year Bachelor of Social Work, a Masters in Clinical Social Work, and a PhD on worker stress. I believe in the equal importance of clients and workers, and have been active as a union representative and in health and safety roles…Lorraine Harrison



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NOTE: If you like this post, you might find others of interest in the category on Bullying and Power abuse. Additionally, the Favorites category brings together posts from across all main categories and provides a sense of the scope of this 2020socialjustice website and blog…Joan Beckwith


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9 comments on “Cold indifference – new normal for community services?”

  1. Christine Mackley says:

    Thanks for a great article Lorraine. It seems to be the way to survive in the sector is to ‘care less’. How ironic. The problem is, it’s not in our nature to care less. We chose this field because we care a lot. So where does this leave us? I really don’t know.

    • Thanks for your comment, Christine. Lorraine sent the following in response:
      “Hi Christine,
      Thank you for your positive feedback.
      I guess in terms of ‘Where does this leave us’, we need to collectivise, discuss and brainstorm ideas and options e.g. small action – create fliers for putting into our work places about positive workplaces cultures etc

      Cheers Lorraine Harrison”

  2. Embedding the Facebook post that promoted this website post to preserve the data and discussion

  3. Beth says:

    Thank you Lorraine,
    A great article and I agree.
    Social Workers have been underpaid, treated poorly and expected to do the impossible. In quite a number of locum positions I saw the results of violence, abuse and stress on social workers. That’s why the locum positions opened up. I experienced some apallingly incompetent managers. Some from other fields, with no social work background at all managing social workers and psychologists.
    Some managers are punishing, of clients and staff. Some were racist, some were there to earn money, to make a pretense of caring and advocating for clients.
    I agree about joining a union, then being active in the union. Making it strong. It will take a revolution to ensure that community workers are valued, protected and safe. All power to you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Beth. Lorraine sent the following response:
      “Ditto to everything you have shared Beth.
      I too have done a lot of locum case management in disability and aged care over the last couple of years and have also been appalled. I have seen the community sector, in general, go backwards in frequent bad behaviours exhibited towards its workforce. I had hoped there would be an improvement in behaviour towards workers since I completed my thesis in 2013 (‘Feeling the heat: workers’ experiences of job stress in the Victorian Community Services Sector’) but this is not the case. Neo liberalism/economic rationalism is still pulling the strings. I wonder when those strings will be cut.
      Many thanks and appreciation, Lorraine.”

  4. Boris Nesic says:

    I left the city where l did my youth work study of 3 years to return to my hometown some 75 kms away. I accepted a job where l did my final placement. I was also dealing with the apparent suicide of my oldest friend and incest in my family at the time, but naively thought l could deal with it as l was a ‘jock’ sporting wise and l had numerous other hobbies and outlets. All of a sudden l had gone from metropolitan inclusivity to regional outcast. I was then involved in a lot of Melbourne’s initial sexual assault training in which l had really felt like l was a pioneer. I felt crap inside but a passionate outcast, and some of the agencies l was working with really were cold and my immediate supervisor was very judgmental and went out of his way to embarrass me at a staff party by insinuating that l wasn’t able to freely speak my mind. I did have a lot going on though. Needless to say as an outreach youth worker with personal issues l burned out quickly. This was 30 years ago. I have made several attempts to up skill since and spoken to ex colleagues. I have even worked in.parallel community sections of government and NGO’s but l have completely given up hope now even though l have lived an incredible life that l could document freely the twists and turns of family collusion and advocating for prisoners in jail while working as a prison guard. It seems that if you have a reputation, people expect you to live up to that and treat you accordingly. I know community services workers wages are poor compared to some public servants, but l partly blame my treatment as a 25 to 30 years old hurt person as a pawn in a game of funding shenanigans and it has taken me 32 years to have enough armour around me to be ok with working meaningless jobs for little money and stimulus.

    • Thanks for your comment, Boris. Lorraine sent the following response:
      “An extensive and challenging life journey, Boris. I do wonder how many incredibly experienced workers like you leave the health and community sector and never return. A waste of trained, committed and passionate workers gone after being psychologically and physically drained and damaged.
      We do need to rise up against the brutality and toxicity within work places in our ‘caring and sharing’ sector” (Lorraine Harrison).

  5. Carol says:

    Great article. Thank you speaking out so articulately Lorraine. The clients were very lucky to have such a dedicated support worker while you were there. It’s such a shame that your work wasn’t valued by the employer. All the best to you in future.

    • Thanks for your comment, Carol. Lorraine sent the following response:
      “It’s a shame that the name of the game is getting bums on seats and moving clients on quickly. This sets up clients to bounce from one service to another and possibly back to the original service. As for workers who try to provide a thorough, decent and productive role alongside clients they soon get told to ‘play the game and move ’em on’ or move on yourself’. This over-focus on economic rationalism is counterproductive” (Lorraine Harrison).

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