I’m a professional, I’m fine, I’ve been doing this for X amount of years. Does any of these sound familiar? In the past couple of years and maybe more during 2020, we have seen work shift and change too often and fast. According to recent research, life has become more traumatic, or at least that’s how some healthcare providers have experienced the change. As a counselor, I have become more aware of the exposure to vicarious trauma as things seem to get more chaotic on TV or smartphones. For anyone in the helping field, vicarious trauma can manifest in various forms. The CDC describes secondary or vicarious trauma as “stress reactions and symptoms resulting from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experiences, rather than from exposure directly to a traumatic event.” Individuals in the public health field need to know the symptoms and red flags associated with this concept. However, leadership’s responsiveness and awareness of this in their organizational culture are more important. Organizational culture is an essential pillar of any work environment. But what is organizational culture, and what does it have to do with vicarious trauma, you may ask? In 2021, Mercadal described organizational culture as “the formal environment and norms that characterize a specific organization, as well as the informal behavioral and social phenomena that occur among individuals in an organization.” Meaning that depending on the culture at any given job, employees are significantly impacted and influenced by it. As we learned more about the impact of traumatic experiences on public health workers in 2020, we began to understand the heavy work done daily with what looks like a never-ending dark tunnel. Research suggests that individuals who work with victims of abuse or other traumatic life experience are more likely to experience burnout and vicarious trauma. According to the CDC, these symptoms can include:
*Excessively worry or fear about something terrible happening
*Easily startled or “on guard” all of the time
*Physical signs of stress (e.g., racing heart)
*Nightmares or recurrent thoughts about the traumatic situation
*The feeling that others’ trauma is yours
It is essential to understand that the impact of vicarious trauma on employees can significantly shift the organizational culture in the workplace. Think about a group of social workers who may have experienced increased abuse cases and are currently short-staffed. The amount of stress and additional work may increase tension, engagement, productivity, and even professional interactions at the office or online. It requires a supportive and understanding team to tackle the day-to-day stressors and take care of each other while taking care of others. Leadership plays an essential role in encouraging safe working environments and safe spaces for employees. The question is, how are we preparing leadership to do so? Next up, how do we prepare leaders for this ever-changing world?
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Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2018, https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/responders.asp
Mercadal, T. (2021). Organizational culture. Salem Press Encyclopedia.