How Does Vicarious Trauma Affect Organizational Health?
Between 40% and 85% of “helping professionals” develop vicarious trauma, empathic strain and/or high rates of traumatic symptoms (Mathieu, 2012).
Stress has an enormous impact on the health of an organization, and when the added element of secondary and/or direct trauma exposure is present, balancing workplace wellness becomes far more complicated, and we would argue, even more critical.
Why Does It Matter?
A vicarious trauma-informed organization recognizes these challenges and proactively addresses the impact of vicarious trauma through policies, procedures, practices, and programs.
Organizations’ leadership have the ethical responsibility to create supportive work environments and resources to combat this. Sound organizational interventions, policies and sustainability processes ensure wellness of an organization as a whole, thus enabling the provision of strong and effective services to our communities
Research consistently demonstrates a return of $2.00 to $5.00 for every dollar invested in comprehensive population based wellness programs.
Strategies to Promote Organizational Well-being
Leadership needs to develop a culture of compassion and support throughout all levels of the program in order to keep staff healthy and effective. This culture must include all staff and volunteers. Leadership should promote the idea that it takes a compassionate community of people working together to heal from trauma. This culture should be developed and maintained through specific policies, procedures, and regular activities. These include:
- Create opportunities and procedures for employees to vary their duties and alleviate heavy caseloads (Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, 2003; White, 2006; Slatten, Carson, and Carson, 2011)
- Ensure that employees have a safe and comfortable physical environment in which to work (Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, 2003; White, 2006)
- Encourage staff to take regular lunch breaks, to use vacation leave, and take sick leave as needed
- Promote practicing self-care both on and off work time (Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, 2003; Slatten, Carson, and Carson, 2011; Meichenbaum, 2007)
- Include coverage for mental health services in employee health benefits (Bell, Kulkarni, Dalton, 2003)
- Implement support measures that foster connection and cohesion among employees (Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, 2003; Adams, Shakespeare-Finch, and Armstrong, 2015)
- Model the use of Low Impact Debriefing
- Conduct surveys to elicit employees’ feedback, and assess their satisfaction with the organization including exit interviews. Inquire about recommendations for improving the organization’s response to VT and its impact on employee well-being, turnover, and other aspects of the work (United States Fire Administration, 1999)
From the very beginning, emphasize core values of compassion, respect for each other and clients, and a shared commitment to working with victims.
- Initial job postings and position descriptions should refer to the core values.
- During the interviewing process, give fair warning about the potential impacts of this work. This is necessary for all levels of staffing.
- The interview process should assess the capacities of the applicant to know when they are experiencing stress and to use healthy coping strategies.
- Applicants with previous experience working with traumatized people should be queried about attitudes that can result from vicarious trauma, such as excessive cynicism. These can be red flags in the interviewing process.
- Click for a list of sample interview questions
Orienting new staff and trainees at the beginning is very important. They need to be informed about vicarious trauma, and about how a culture of compassion, optimism and support, along with regular structured activities, will help prevent it. Before they start seeing clients, they need to know why, how, and when to get support for themselves. (Newell and MacNeil, 2010).
In addition, all staff should receive ongoing professional development training on a regular basis. In addition to enhancing the professional competence and efficacy of staff, these trainings also serve as a buffer to stress-related responses. (Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, 2003; Bell and Jenkins, 1993; Pearlman and McKay. 2008).
Promote collaborations with other organizations working with victims of trauma and violence for additional information sharing and social support (McCann and Pearlman, 1990).
In addition to agency business, staff meetings are an important part of maintaining a culture of compassion, optimism and mutual support. They can incorporate institutional rituals that explicitly remind staff that—in spite of the horrific experiences of traumatized people—the world is not a bad place. Some useful practices include:
- BOOK ENDS – Start each meeting asking staff to share a success story and end meeting by encouraging staff to give “shout outs” to acknowledge each other. Practicing gratitude has been demonstrated to increase optimism, joy and other positive emotions. It increases staff resiliency, strengthens relationships and helps to increase altruism and compassion (Emmons & Mishra, 2012).
- CELEBRATING AND RECOGNIZING THOSE WHO CONTRIBUTE TO THE “HEALING COMMUNITY” – In order to support clients, staff rely on their community partners, such as other health care providers, other service agencies, law enforcement, or local businesses who donate goods. These partners are part of the healing community, and they not only concretely support clients, but provide further evidence to clients that they are not alone, and others are “walking with them” on their healing journey. Remember to do shout outs and show appreciation to these partners. This practice helps to reinforce the good works of our partners while it strengthens and expands the TRC as a healing community.
- PROMOTE LOW IMPACT DEBRIEFING – Make your organization a “No Slime” zone by utilizing Low Impact Debriefing to control the amount of traumatic material that staff is exposed to. You can find more information
- CELEBRATIONS – such as staff lunches, or parties should be organized around occasions such as work anniversaries, funding awards, birthdays, and other events that have positive meaning for staff.
Individual supervision is essential. Supervisors should inquire about staff members’ mindfulness of the ways they are impacted by trauma work, as well as the specific coping strategies that are most effective for them, or that they would like to experiment with. (Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, 2003; White, 2006; Bednar, 2003; Slatten, Carson, and Carson, 2011).
When addressing vicarious trauma, supervisors need to support staff by empowering them and believing in their resiliency. While vicarious trauma is a real work hazard, it can also be effectively managed. Validate and normalize their experience, and include the exploration of coping strategies. In addition, supervision should:
- Actively promote a flow of direct and clear communication between frontline employees and upper management
- Provide positive and constructive feedback to staff; deliver it in a manner that is in the staff member’s interest
- Explain employees’ roles and responsibilities and clarify performance expectations (Bednar, 2003; Adams, Shakespeare-Finch, and Armstrong, 2015)
The STS Supervisory Competencies is a tool that individuals and organizations can use as a benchmark of the competencies needed to provide effective STS supervision, and is also a map to resources that can help address gaps in those competencies.
Adapted from: The UC San Francisco Trauma Recovery Center Model: Removing Barriers to Care and Transforming Services for Survivors of Violent Crime. Edited by Stacey Wiggall, LCSW & Alicia Boccellari, Ph.D