Is vicarious trauma a psychosocial risk in my workplace?

Gone are the days whereby trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and vicarious trauma are terms reserved only for emergency personnel or those in the military. Whilst these professions do have higher rates of both PTSD and vicarious trauma, it is well acknowledged that some professional services roles are also at risk of developing symptoms of vicarious trauma in the workplace. People who work in professions and roles such as media (journalists), health and mental health, legal, housing, family services and even debt collectors, through repeated exposure to traumatic information or traumatised individuals, are at risk of developing symptoms of vicarious trauma.

All of these professions share a common feature, the work of helping, and a key personal characteristic for these roles is that of empathy. Empathy is critical to successfully working with individuals exposed to trauma, but the risk is that it also increases one’s likelihood of experiencing vicarious trauma.

So, is vicarious trauma a psychosocial risk for workplaces?

In short, most definitely! Mental health professionals believe that vicarious trauma is a psychosocial risk in workplaces, and work needs to be done by workplaces to ensure the safety of their employees, and to mitigate the effects of exposure to secondary trauma. If controls and supports are not implemented to address the risk of vicarious trauma, there is the potential for the individual to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, says the American Psychiatric Association. This is a very real risk to workplaces, and it is important that workplaces containing highly stressful roles or environments take the steps to support their employees.

Organisations in the work of helping and by which employees are exposed to traumatic events, have unique psychosocial risk factors that other workplaces may not contain. These include:

  • High workload
  • Extremely tight deadlines
  • Potential exposure to traumatic incidents / material
  • Witness to, or experience of, threats of harm or homicide
  • Relationships formed with victims in their work
  • The quality of their relationship with their peers and direct manager (e.g. lack of organisational support)
  • Lack of screening for suitability to a role
  • Conflicting work demands

What should workplaces be doing about it?

The clearest predictor to developing vicarious trauma is exposure to trauma, in particular, cumulative exposure to trauma. Whilst employees may not be able to completely avoid being exposed to traumatic material, there is much that can be done at the individual, team, and organisational level that can assist in mitigating the risks of vicarious trauma.

Not only do workplaces have a social and moral obligation to support the wellbeing of their employees, they also have a legal obligation. Under the WHS Act, workplaces have a duty of care to identify, assess, and manage the risk of an employee from a wellbeing perspective. This means that if they see or hear someone who may be exposed to psychosocial risk, workplaces have a responsibility to provide support.

At the Centre for Corporate Health, we have a three-tired approach to addressing vicarious trauma in the workplace:

Prevention
  • Screening for job appropriateness
  • Identification of areas exposed to risk of vicarious trauma
  • Vicarious trauma training
  • Development of peer support and leadership support programs
  • Training for managers on leading a psychologically safe team
  • Training on resilience and recovery
Intervention
  • Proactive Well checks
  • Early intervention counselling support
  • High risk support
  • Employee wellbeing coaching
  • Leadership support coaching
Recovery
  • Psychological assessments to support recovery efforts
  • Building mental health literacy with key stakeholders to support individual recovery plans
  • Holistic and coordinated recovery and return to work services

For more information on our suite of services for mitigating vicarious trauma, as a workplace psychosocial risk factor, please contact us at admin@cfch.com.au or on 02 8243 1500.