Written by Kristen Holzapfel
Image by Kylee Sharples from Wilomark Imagery
Vicarious Trauma (VT) is a common phenomenon amongst first responders, frontline helping professionals and others who spend their days working with highly traumatised clients. It’s a common phenomenon but it doesn’t have to be. Providing regular supervision, time for reflection and minimising excessively long work hours goes a long way to addressing the risk.
Professionals with VT may begin to identify with their clients’ experiences and find themselves viewing the world as physically and emotionally unsafe. With symptoms similar to those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, they may experience nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of triggers and ongoing anxiety.
It isn’t unusual for those experiencing VT to also experience a lack of workplace support or even bullying.
The workplace may;
(a) neglect to provide the support necessary to prevent or address trauma
(b) refuse to acknowledge or address the worker’s claims of traumatisation or
(c) actively exacerbate the symptoms of trauma by belittling, intimidating, shaming or exposing the worker to further traumatic triggers
I was a child protection social worker for six years before experiencing VT. The pace was frantic, with workers often feeling like they were barely able to keep on top of an ever-increasing workload. The work itself was often graphic and highly emotional. With time at a premium and everybody busy with their own overflowing caseloads, there were rarely opportunities for reflection or even the clinical supervision which is meant to be regularly provided to all professional psychologists and social workers.
In 2006, I was aged in my late twenties and being threatened with transfer into a particularly challenging area of child protection work. Despite repeatedly advising my team leader I absolutely could not return to this area, I was told I would be transferred whether I was ready or not.
The prospect of returning to this kind of work produced a visceral panic, causing me to cease eating and rapidly lose a great deal of weight. The work situation remained unresolved and, for more than a year, I remained in a state of ongoing terror I would be transferred into the workplace of my nightmares. Unable to reach a state where I felt safe enough to resume eating, an eating disorder became ingrained and, in February 2009, I was admitted to hospital for treatment of Anorexia Nervosa.
As my recovery progressed, I became increasingly focussed on raising awareness of VT and helping to address the mystery, fear and shame surrounding this condition. Between 2012 and 2016, I wrote and published my own account of what VT looks like, feels like and the environment in which it thrives. I hope my book, “Selfless: a social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery”, provides a valuable insight into how we, as a community, can better support the vital work of our frontline helping professionals.
Today, VT and anorexia are in my past. I am a well and happy woman with a bright future. I continue to share my story in the hope of producing better outcomes for today’s social workers and psychologists.
I share my story as a way of starting a much-needed conversation and it provides me with valuable opportunities to ask helping professionals;
“Do you have adequate time for professional reflection and professional development (within standard business hours)?”
“Do you regularly work overtime, accruing flextime and/or personal leave?”
“Do you sleep well and find it relatively easy to ‘shut off’’ from work at the end of the day?”
“Do you feel safe when you’re at work? And when you’re at home?”
For those who answer with a resounding “no!” I hear you and I want to wrap you up in a hug and tell you it will be okay. Please remember you are not alone and you are so much more than your career! There are three categories of people who are best placed to remind you of this fact:
- The people who know you and love you. If your family and close friends are all telling you they’re worried about you, it’s time to listen. These people are usually the first to recognise that you’re struggling (maybe before you recognise the signs yourself!)
- The people with specific skills to help and advocate for you. I had many professional helpers seated beside me throughout the rollercoaster ride to recovery. In the front seats were my GP, psychologist, psychiatrist, dietician & careers advisor. You may also find financial planners, legal advisors, coaches, union representatives and/or your human resource team to also be of great benefit. When you find yourself interviewing for your perfect recovery team, be selective and insist on nothing but the highest quality and professionalism. It can take time, but remember that your recovery can depend on the strength of your professional ‘tribe’.
- The people who help you feel less alone and more connected to the world around you. Are there others in similar industries who made it through to the other side? If you do some research on VT, you may find it empowering to realise how common this sort of injury actually is. Can you reach out to these people? How did they begin their road to recovery? What worked and didn’t work? Knowledge is power.
The bottom line is, VT may be a serious condition, but it is both preventable and treatable. Recovery is possible and you are a valuable human being with limitless potential, inside and outside of the workplace.
About the author – Kristen is a long-term Canberra resident and small business owner. In addition to being a Social Worker, she has a Diploma in Human Resource Management and a Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing.
Her book is available from www.kholzapfel.com