Vicarious Traumatisation on the Front Line
Social workers’ health and well being
“All emotions are contagious… both the ones that are pleasant and the ones that are unpleasant” – Babette Rothschild.
Babette argues that all social workers on the front line where we listen to terrible incidents can suffer from ‘vicarious traumatisation’. It means that often the listener finds themselves mirroring the feelings of suffering in their own nervous system to the person they listen to. This is very nice if the conversation is all about pleasant things, but as most of our work is challenging the reverse applies – those regularly involved with individuals and families in crisis are subject to symptoms related to burn out or compassion fatigue.
Frost and Robinson in the Harvard Business Review call social workers on the front line ‘toxic handlers’. If people release all of their feelings to you in such a way that it’s difficult for you to process – for example anger, threats, disgust or contempt – they do activate mechanisms within our neural systems that mimic what they are feeling, and therefor these emotions can be contagious.
Daniel Goleman (2006) ‘anyone whose role involves direct work with people may, over time begin to notice negative consequences.’ This could include social workers, nurses, emergency services staff, counsellors and those involved closely involved in recording traumatic events.
The article goes on to talk about signs to look out for in your own health and well being. These include: intrusive images or dreams, an increase in sleepless nights or changes in sleep patterns, a more than usual questioning of your role or perhaps even career, general sense of tiredness or lethargy, this can also trigger a viral reaction in that colleagues can be ‘infected’ by this. In severe cases depression and loss of meaning in ones life and potential substance misuse to try and alleviate the symptoms.
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My own feelings on this matter are that the sickness rates and moral indicators within teams of people are certainly influenced by this process if not recognised early enough. You’ve got to be there on the spot, in many cases to do the caring, safeguarding, looking after or listening. So if your motivation is disabled your effectiveness is undermined and more people suffer than just you.
Solid supervision, reasonable case loads, good counselling, peer support and universal recognition of the difficulties in social workers jobs could only help. The nature of the traumas that many of us as social workers have to confront are as complicated as things could possibly be sometimes.
The solutions have to be comprehensive to maintain a healthy workforce. See also my post on Social Work Stress and Anxiety