Regular exposure to suffering, hardship or crisis can take its toll on all of us. Whether you’re a firefighter, caregiver, nurse, policy advisor, climate change activist, paramedic, case worker or lawyer, many frontline and helping professions are exposed to some level of trauma – homelessness, child abuse, domestic violence, community tragedies, natural disasters or pollution, to name a few. It makes sense that these experiences may affect us individually and collectively in our lives, organisations and society.
“Vicarious trauma” is the term used by psychologists to describe the changes a person can experience as a result of working with traumatic experiences. Vicarious trauma sounds like quite a heavy term. Essentially, it recognises that challenging workplace factors such as exposure to trauma or adversity can negatively impact on employee wellbeing. It’s important not to assume that exposure to trauma will necessarily lead to an employee being negatively affected but it is worth recognition and discussion. Different but related terms include empathic strain, compassion fatigue, burnout or simply “feeling meh”.
Common signs of vicarious trauma can include physical and emotional exhaustion as if there is just no juice left in the tank. People can feel disconnected, overwhelmed and helpless and may therefore dissociate―for example, realising you haven’t heard the last five sentences your colleague has said to you. Sometimes people are more likely to minimise the impact of the situation or experience an inability to empathise. Others may notice they are more on edge, fearful, angry, cynical and struggle to switch off. For example, they may have difficulty leaving work behind at the end of the day or difficulty falling or staying asleep at night. In response, people may be more likely to use alcohol and drugs or other distractions to essentially “check-out”. These changes can vary from short-term reactions to long-term effects. While these changes are normal human reactions in response to significantly stressful events, you can see how they can be hugely detrimental to the individual’s wellbeing and work performance if they go on for too long.
Vicarious trauma can be a hard cycle to break within an individual and organisation. Cultivating awareness of vicarious trauma allows us to do something about it and evidence-based practice offers us proactive steps to implement into our daily routines to prevent getting caught in the cycle. These steps may include:
Access the present moment and find balance
Consider your particular work environment and daily routines, what moments can you reclaim to attend to your own wellbeing? Can you commit to walking outside for five minutes during every hour that you are working? Could you use this time to focus on breathing in deeply and breathing out slowly? Allocate time to a daily practice to re-centre yourself. This could be through meditation, cooking, playing the guitar, lifting weights or walking the dog.
Pursue your meaning and purpose
Ask yourself why are you doing what you are doing? What is your intent? Remind yourself what it is about for you. Take time to pursue personally meaningful tasks.
Plan recovery time
Build in daily rest and recovery strategies. Identify one strategy that you would love to incorporate into your work day but are certain you could not. Then, try everything in your power to make it a reality.
Ask yourself, when you leave work, do you really leave work? No cell phones or devices to check? Consider recovery strategies that enable you to mentally switch gears from work to home.
Write down all your annual leave allocation and start planning your holidays now.
Use your supports
When people are working in particularly challenging areas, it is important not to be isolated. Employees need to feel supported and have a strong sense that everyone looks out for one another. Using your colleagues in this way serves as a buffer in dealing with difficult situations. Consider what support you have available at work. Perhaps a peer support system or mentor? Coach? Or regular professional supervision? Professional supervision allows you space to reflect on your work and its impact with an independent, qualified professional. For example, it can help you understand why certain cases may “push your buttons”.
Focus on positive emotions
While recognising there is a huge amount of suffering in the world, we can consciously create more joy by focusing on boosting positive emotions. At the beginning and end of your work day, take a moment to think of one thing you are grateful for. As a team, create an opportunity where you and your colleagues can elicit gratitude and hope. This could be facilitated during staff meetings by setting aside time to acknowledge what’s going well or what people are truly grateful for. It could also be a bulletin board where employees can post anonymous thank you notes, having an employee-of-the-week lunch or simply a culture where people routinely thank each other.
Humour can also assist in strengthening resilience and lightening the load of trauma work. Whether you think about this individually or collectively as a team, your use of humour needs to align with the environment you work in and should not be offensive in any way.
Prioritise healthy life choices
Take time to reflect on your life choices. For example, are you getting enough exercise, sleep and nutrition? Are you engaging in enjoyable activities and spending time with friends and family? Reflect on your daily alcohol or caffeine intake. At work, take time to eat lunch and chat with your colleagues.
Develop a culture of kindness
Practise compassion for yourself and others. Reflect on your own personal values and organisation’s values. What values do you call on to sustain you in your work? Do you treat others with respect, dignity and kindness? Consider dedicating a team meeting to discuss how your workplace can foster a greater culture of kindness and wellbeing. For example, consider introducing a staff wellbeing hour each month, organise team acts of kindness or engage in commonly enjoyed activities as a team.
In more recent research, psychologists have identified a strengths-focused conceptcalled “vicarious resilience”. What the concept recognises is that through trauma exposure, a person can also experience personal growth. It’s a positive ideato attend to and nurture.
Organisations where employees report more perceived support are associated with less vicarious trauma. Organisations need to “walk the walk” around employees taking leave and having sustainable work hours. At the centre, organisations need to create a psychologically healthy atmosphere where employees feel appreciated and team morale is strong. Consider training opportunities for staff on vicarious trauma, mental health awareness and resilience. A number of the above strategies are of little or no cost and the benefits can be far reaching. Putting these ideas into practice will benefit employees’ wellbeing and productivity, lessen the impact of trauma and create a greater sense of wellbeing in your organisation.
This article was written in response to an increasing number of organisations having awareness of the need to address the impact the nature of their work has on employees. If you are interested in additional reading, the following book comes highly recommended:
Lipsky, L. v. D., & Burk, C. (2009). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.