Exploring the value of adverse life experiences of social service and support workers

Fiona Mackinnon
8 December 2021

Mackinnon, F. (2021). Exploring the value of adverse life experiences of social service and support workers. (A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment for the degree of Master of Professional Practice at Otago Polytechnic.)  https://doi.org/10.34074/thes.5554



Social services provide support to benefit the community, collectively they are an intrinsic part of our culture. Numerous international studies have suggested that persons in helping professions such as health and social services have had more adverse experiences than the general population and that these experiences may have in part formed their vocational motivation. This is an area of little research in Aotearoa that I believed worthy of exploration given that I have worked in the sector for decades and had anecdotally identified a reoccurring theme amongst my colleagues and myself of adverse life experiences contributing to our vocational motivation.

The questions that guided this research inquiry were:

  • To what extent are adverse life experiences perceived as an underlying motivator for the vocational choices of social service and support workers?
  • To what extent are adverse life experiences perceived as contributing to advantageous attributes in social service and support workers?
  • To what extent do social service and support workers perceive stigma and professional vulnerability exist as barriers to identifying adverse life experiences in the workplace?

The study was undertaken using a convergent parallel mixed method design. Mixed methods studies are often seen in health and social care research, as both quantitative and qualitative methods are thought to have complementary strengths when undertaken simultaneously, providing deeper insight into the experiences of research participants than either approach alone. Convergent design required both quantitative and qualitative elements to be analysed independently and then interpreted together, this layered approach further supported understanding the experiences of participants.

For the most part respondents commented in the first person when referring to adverse life experiences, suggesting a high incidence of adverse life experiences amongst respondents. Adverse life experiences were considered as influencing vocational choice by numerous respondents; however, it was clear barriers exist to identifying as having had adverse life experiences in the professional context due to fear of stigma and discrimination. Findings suggested there are issues relating to the collective understanding of what ‘recovery’ is that has implications for lived experience workers and those who identified as having had adverse life experiences.

I have recommended that further research is indicated as a means to advance understanding and acceptance of the relationship between adverse life experiences, post traumatic growth and helping professions in the cultural context of Aotearoa and our known societal issues.

The process of practitioner inquiry I believe has advanced my capacity to continue to evolve and develop and remain relevant to the sector and environments I work in. I envisage the enquiry process as having provided an enduring foundation to foster my growth and development on a continuum.

Keywords: welfare studies, adverse experiences, lived experience

Fiona's primary supervisor was Glenys Forsyth.


This thesis is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.

Creative Commons License