September 13 2016

Witnessing trauma at work takes an emotional toll

By Australian Psychological Society

Many professions - paramedics, police, firefighters - involve helping people in traumatic circumstances but witnessing trauma has its own effects that can haunt people for life.

When we think about workplace safety, we often think about introducing or improving initiatives to ensure the physical safety of workers.

In recent years, there’s also been a growing awareness around ensuring not just the physical but also the psychological wellbeing of employees, with more organisations now working to manage the impact of vicarious trauma in the workplace.

While vicarious trauma will never be eliminated from trauma-exposed workplaces, it is possible for organisations to effectively manage it, which has been shown to reduce attrition rates and unplanned absences, and boost the workplace culture.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is the detrimental impact of being indirectly exposed to traumatic experiences or events.

It mostly affects people who work in the helping professions, such as the police, fire brigade, ambulance, emergency services, health, military, rescue, child protection and counselling professions.

Jackie Burke Assoc MAPS*, a psychologist and clinical director of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, says while vicarious trauma is extremely common it’s not classed as a mental health disorder.

“Some level of vicarious trauma is actually common for most people who work in a trauma-exposed profession most of the time,” she says.

“Having said that, it’s not true to say that it needs to be problematic for the person, but some symptoms can be long-lasting and severe.”

How does vicarious trauma affect workers?

Research shows the only reliable predictor of whether a person will experience vicarious trauma is whether they are exposed to traumatic experiences, events or material.

Ms Burke says the symptoms are similar to symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“The actual symptoms in terms of intrusions, avoidance, arousal problems, and negative alterations to mood or thinking are very similar across people suffering from PTSD and people suffering from vicarious trauma-type symptoms,” she says.

Vicarious trauma can affect a worker’s mental health and physical wellbeing while undermining their ability to respond to traumatised clients.

If left unchecked, vicarious trauma can have major ramifications for the individual and also for the workplace, leading to unplanned absences, high attrition rates, compensation claims, and also impact the workplace culture and morale.

How can workers and organisations manage vicarious trauma?

Ms Burke, who has worked in sexual assault, family and domestic violence for 18 years, co-pioneered the introduction of a unique Vicarious Trauma Management Program at Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia 11 years ago.

Ms Burke says the program, which won a WorkCover NSW Work Safe Award, now acts as a foundation for other trauma-exposed workforces to implement their own vicarious trauma management programs.

She says organisations can effectively manage vicarious trauma, and mitigate its risk, through a robust multi-pronged management program with strategies including education, risk reduction processes, monitoring processes, early intervention and proactive symptom responses.

“We set up processes to allow for early defusing and to allow immediate access to professionals who can provide strategies for the management of the impacts.”

Ms Burke says employees can also offset some of the milder symptoms of vicarious trauma using individual self-care strategies, such as physical exercise.

She says while some organisations are slow to get on board, other workplaces are reaping the benefits of looking after their employees.

“We know that it’s possible to manage this effectively. We’ve got consistent data that tells us that the programs work in multiple different ways,” she says.

“Over time, I believe we will get to the point where psychological injury arising from vicarious trauma is a well recognised work, health and safety issue.”

Ms Burke will be presenting at the Australian Psychological Society Congress 2016, in Melbourne, 13-16 September.

*Associate Member of the Psychological Society of Australia