What is vicarious trauma doing to your investigators?

Vicarious trauma is the mental harm that can come to others when hearing or witnessing traumatic material that relates to others. Investigators are at risk of experiencing vicarious trauma.

Corporate workplace and insurance investigators see and hear many challenging things during the course of an investigation. As a result, the potential impact of vicarious trauma on their performance and wellbeing is a very real consideration.

Vicarious trauma is the mental harm that can come to others when hearing or witnessing traumatic material that relates to others. We are accustomed to understanding the impact of vicarious trauma on first responders and those working in child and community services. Yet other professionals who are obliged to listen and respond to traumatic events can be just as vulnerable to the side effects of human storytelling. Associated illnesses such as major depression and PTSD are also key risks for investigators.

We examine the causes and effects of vicarious trauma as well as some key strategies for managing workers in stressful contexts. Employers of workplace investigators must be aware of the workplace risks associated with investigative work, as well as their duty of care to prevent vicarious trauma from impacting the health and performance of investigators.

Vicarious trauma in the workplace

Those who listen, watch and report on traumatic events know the toll that it can take on their own wellbeing. Recently, a Victorian crime reporter for The Age was awarded $180,000 for the vicarious trauma that she suffered in documenting very traumatic events across a number of years. Vicarious trauma is often a cumulative injury, whereby the combination of witnessing, suffering compassion fatigue and finding no employer support can conspire to directly impact upon the wellbeing of the worker in question. Like other professionals such as reporters and lawyers, workplace investigators are inherently exposed to a wide range of complex, disturbing and traumatic material as they go about their investigative tasks. Recounted material on workplace assaults, harassment and bullying might just seem like the ‘bread and butter’ of workplace investigations. Yet there is much that can be done by the employers of workplace investigators to protect them from the very real danger of developing vicarious trauma.

Vicarious trauma and ‘coal face’ human service professionals

A similar profession – the law – is beginning to gather some helpful information on the risks of vicarious trauma on the health, wellbeing and performance of lawyers and the judiciary. If we consider road accidents, murders, child sexual assault and violent robberies for example, it is no wonder that lawyers are prone to developing vicarious trauma when exposed to such material day in and day out. Like the judiciary, workplace investigators often work alone which makes them prone to isolation, loneliness, heavy workloads, complex work, and exposure to the traumatic experiences of others. These risk factors for vicarious trauma are real – and worth keeping front-and-centre when monitoring wellbeing and performance.

Preventing vicarious trauma for investigators

All employers must take all reasonable precautions to prevent vicarious trauma from occurring in the workplace. For those who employ workplace investigators, consideration should be given to the development of vicarious trauma training, vicarious resilience activities, peer support mechanisms and easy-access resources for those workplace investigators who are struggling with potential vicarious trauma.

At our Mental Health and Investigations Symposium on March 4, 2021, we will be providing practical information on the importance of preventing and dealing with vicarious trauma in the context of workplace investigations. Register online and find out the key ways in which you can protect your investigators and enhance their performance in the face of the troubling spectre of vicarious trauma.

 

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