Vicarious trauma- a silent hazard on the rise?

Vicarious trauma in the workplace is a silent hazard, and it’s on the increase. Traditionally, a risk reserved for industries such as emergency services, the Covid-19 pandemic and the prevalence of natural disasters, has seen vicarious trauma emerge in many different sectors. We are now seeing workers being constantly exposed to other people’s stress and anxiety, grief, loss, and trauma.

The High Court Decision: Kozarov v Victoria

In April 2022, the High Court of Australia made its decision in the Kozarov v Victoria appeal. Ms Kozarov sought damages from her former employer, the Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP), in her role as a solicitor in the Specialised Sexual Offences Unit (SSOU). The primary question in the appeal was whether the OPP failed to take reasonable measures in response to “evident signs” to Ms Kozarov’s psychiatric injury from vicarious trauma experienced in the role, which resulted in an exacerbation and prolongation of Ms Kozarov’s psychiatric injury.

In June 2009, Ms Kozarov commenced her employment in the SSOU at the OPP. In her role, Ms Kozarov worked on child sexual abuse claims. In February 2012, Ms Kozarov was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from vicarious trauma experienced during her employment in the SSOU. She was later diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) as a consequence of her PTSD.

The High Court of Australia collectively allowed Ms Kozarov’s appeal and reinstated the orders of the Supreme Court. As quoted from Kozarov v Victoria [2022] HCA 12 at 65:

‘The primary question in this appeal is whether Victoria’s failure to provide Ms Kozarov with a safe system of work caused the exacerbation and prolongation of her PTSD, and subsequent development of MDD. The answer is “yes”.’

What this means for you

The High Court decision confirms that employers must take precautions to control known risks to the health and safety of employees, including known risks that arise from the nature of the work being undertaken by the employees.

At the Centre for Corporate Health, we have already seen law firms take this into account. In particular, where there are practice groups dealing with distressing content within matters.

If you have customer facing teams or business units that deal with distressing content as a regular part of their role, this ruling may have implications for safety in your business.

What can we do to help

The Centre for Corporate Health team are highly experienced in prevention, intervention, and recovery management of vicarious trauma as a psychosocial risk. Working with organisations for over 23 years around best-practice management of vicarious trauma.

If left unchecked, vicarious trauma can begin to impact an individual’s mental health and wellbeing. As such, a comprehensive and practical framework is necessary for workplaces to mitigate this as a psychosocial risk and minimise its impact on the wellbeing of their people. If you would like to discuss how you can develop a best-practice approach for managing vicarious trauma in your workplace, check out our Vicarious Trauma Bundle, listing our suite of services.

Interested in knowing more? Reach out to our team at CFCH on 02 8243 1500 or email admin@cfch.com.au