COVID-19 has created the ideal conditions for vicarious trauma to surface. How can HR step in to curb this problem?
Warning: this article discusses mental illness and suicide and may be distressing for some readers. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
On February 8 2021, Olivia Messer resigned from her position as a reporter at the US-based news organisation The Daily Beast, and posted the following message on Twitter:
“While I’m tempted to be vague about my departure, I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the profound exhaustion, loss, grief, burnout, and trauma of the past year covering – and living in – a mass casualty event that has changed all of our lives.”
Messer subsequently outlined, in harrowing detail, her experience of vicarious trauma and burnout in an emotionally wrought piece for Study Hall – a media newsletter and online support network for media workers.
“In between meetings and interviews and filing stories, I was falling apart. I was writing poems about suicide. I went whole days without eating at all. At one point, I collapsed onto the floor from dehydration. I was vomiting from stress,” she wrote.
“My nightmares, in which I was shot or raped or watching coworkers burn alive in front of me, scared me so much that some nights I refused to sleep at all. When I was too afraid to sleep, I was still restless because I was too angry or too anxious or too sad or too filled with shame… There were times I took sick days because I couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to string even a few pitches together.”
Unfortunately, Messer isn’t alone in this ordeal.
Since her departure, numerous journalists have handed in their resignation, attributing their burnout to emotional distress caused by round the clock reporting on the rising COVID-19 case numbers and death toll.
While vicarious trauma is widely known to impact frontline responders – such as police officers, paramedics, firefighters and veterans – instances of vicarious trauma experienced by other working professionals like Messer tend to receive less attention in the public domain.
According to psychologist Adam Blanch, who provides organisational training in preventing, treating and responding to vicarious trauma, frontline responders “get a lot of attention in regard to vicarious trauma, and rightly so, because they have a direct exposure to trauma that is hard to avoid”.
But there are also ‘second line’ responders – such as lawyers, financial counsellors, case managers, psychotherapists and insurance workers – who are continually exposed to trauma through “hearing and reading the stories of what happened, and through witnessing the ongoing effects on the traumatised person”.
Though we knew before COVID-19 that organisations have a duty of care to support their employees’ mental health, the pandemic has put this responsibility into even sharper view. And it’s made clear that no one is immune.
Vicarious trauma can strike anyone
Blanch defines vicarious trauma as “any event in which a person felt they lacked the agency to meet their needs and came away from it with a negative belief about themselves because of that”.
Professionals in helping careers, such as HR professionals, are particularly at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma because “they want to help, and sometimes they can’t, so they can come away from those interactions feeling that they failed the other person and themselves”.
Although Blanch outlines risk factors that render some people more vulnerable to experiencing vicarious trauma – for instance, carrying unresolved trauma, holding unrealistic expectations about one’s own role, or poorly defined boundaries around their compassion response – he also emphasises how vicarious trauma can “happen to just about anyone who has empathy for others and ends up feeling they couldn’t make a positive difference”.
The Lookout, an organisation for workers supporting women’s safety in Victoria, outlines the following symptoms for organisations to be aware of:
- Taking on too great a sense of personal responsibility
- Difficulty leaving work at the end of the day
- Disturbed sleep/nightmares/racing thoughts
- Loss of connection with self and others, or a weakened sense of one’s own identity
- Increased need to control events, outcomes or others
- Withdrawing from others
- Problems managing personal boundaries, including invasive thoughts about a client’s situation
Insuring against psychological harm
Hearing instances of trauma on a daily basis is bound to weigh most people down.
Senior manager of health and safety for QBE Jay Epps has seen how employees manning the phones for insurance claims are impacted by regular exposure to confronting accounts.
He says it’s typically factors beyond an employee’s control that make a call particularly traumatic.
“For example, a claimant needs to quit smoking or lose weight before a surgery can occur and this causes delays in treatment and frustrates [them],” says Epps. “Claimants tell of the impact of their injury to their life. They might say, ‘I can’t drive now and see my elderly parents, things take a lot longer to do, I no longer enjoy life, this is causing difficulties in my relationship, my wages have reduced and I can’t afford to buy my children birthday/Christmas presents.’
“If you take calls like this, you have to tap into your tools to communicate effectively with claimants and manage your own emotions,” says Epps.
Learn more from Epps about creating psychologically safe workplaces during times of trauma at AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion conference in Sydney on May 21.
With many employees now working remotely, Epps says QBE has implemented alternative procedures to support employees including:
- Running training on how to handle sensitive calls, navigate complex matters, contentious decisions and emotionally charged situations
- Training employees in Mental Health First Aid
- Developing a Psychosocial Risk Assessment tool to assist in the identification of psychological risks to employees
Epps also suggests organisations incorporate strategies to manage vicarious trauma into their KPIs, such as psychological incident reporting to enable early intervention, or mandatory training in workplace culture, WHS and concerning behaviours.
Blanch similarly expresses concern about the difficulties remote working presents for psychological debriefing.
“All the people I have trained in this space tell me that most of the time it is peers they are talking to, the person sitting beside them in the office doing the same work ,” says Blanch.
“Formal supervision is great, but often people need a friendly ear in the moment and that’s when they turn to their colleagues… Being in separate spaces is a really big barrier to that.”
Prevention is key – so much so, that Blanch says acting after the incident is usually too late.
He advises organisations take the following proactive steps to create a trauma-informed workforce:
- Implement a vicarious trauma policy
- Foster an uplifting atmosphere that encourages humour, laughter and the sharing of positive experiences, as well as a culture that focuses on and celebrates success and contribution
- Encourage regular breaks
- Manage caseloads
- Train staff and managers in prevention strategies, peer debriefing, regular individual and group supervision, and how to recognise and respond to signs of trauma and compassion fatigue
- Train employees to set professional boundaries with clients and colleagues
- Normalise trauma and encourage openness about it
“Afterwards it’s down to debriefing and recovery,” says Blanch. “But it’s what happens before the trauma gets there that will largely determine the impact it has.”
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.