Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Posttraumatic Stress, Grief, Burnout, and Secondary Trauma of Social Workers

More recently I’ve heard the term “Secondary /Vicarious Trauma,” used during my debriefing team check-ins as we have all become more aware of the the need to be proactive in this area. I personally am far too familiar with Burn-out and Compassion Fatigue, whereby I have applied the prescriptive measures to mitigate the impact on me.

However, as the months have marched on and the world of child welfare has become complex and discouraging, I’ve become somewhat detached emotionally from how I’m dealing as I’m far too consumed with the bigger issues of the families I serve. The only way I can describe the feeling is in terms of feeling perhaps shell shocked and vacant- a robot of human being that seems to be floating from case to case. My main source of motivation for me to keep on truckin’ is that we (social workers) are needed more than ever at the moment. Secondly, when building relationships with the families and youth I serve, I’m also appeasing some selfish needs to satiate my own need for connection and confirmation that I’m not in struggle alone. In a world without gatherings, its pretty pitiful that I now count home visits, systems meetings, and investigation interviews as my “social time.” So with that being said, I’ve subscribed to a steady diet of toxic dysfunction without little reprieve.

And just like the pandemic “circuit breakers” we have all come to familiarize ourselves with, and perhaps loathe at moments, we too deserve a personal circuit breaker when it comes to addressing the psychological impact our work is having on us. More often than not, victims of trauma lack the words to express their grief and fear. Social workers recognize the need and are the first to respond. They are the ones who will speak hope into the hearts of the hurting. But in doing that, we too need to find the words and hope to address our own along the way.

I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody

-Lily Tomlin

So What is Secondary Trauma?

According to Rose Zimering, PhD , Suzy Bird Gulliver, PhD Mental health Workers and Social Workers hear tales of extreme human suffering and observe the emotions of fear, helplessness and horror registered by survivors on a consistent basis. Recent research demonstrates that these occupational duties may cause psychological symptoms in the practitioner who bears witness to the survivors’ account of trauma.

Primary posttraumatic stress disorder may be diagnosed in an individual who experienced, witnessed or was confronted with a traumatic event and responded with intense fear, helplessness or horror. Intentional traumas (e.g., combat, sexual assault, terrorism and mass violence), as well as unintentional traumas (e.g., natural disasters, accidents), may cause this pervasive psychiatric condition.

Secondary trauma is defined as indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account or narrative of a traumatic event. The vivid recounting of trauma by the survivor and the clinician’s subsequent cognitive or emotional representation of that event may result in a set of symptoms and reactions that parallel PTSD (e.g., re-experiencing, avoidance and hyperarousal). Secondary traumatization is also referred to as compassion fatigue (Figley, 1995) and vicarious traumatization (Pearlman and Saakvitne, 1995).

So What is Vicarious Trauma?

 Witnessing trauma (death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual
violence) at work can take an emotional toll. Healthcare providers are at increased risk because their jobs routinely
involve providing care for people who are vulnerable. They see or hear about traumatic events experienced by
others. Over time this exposure can have a negative impact.

 Factors influencing work-related Vicarious Trauma include:
o The nature of the work (repeated direct and indirect exposure to crisis situations), your working conditions,
training related to coping with exposure to trauma, and what supports are available to you in the workplace.
o You can be at more risk for developing vicarious trauma if there are significant stressors and losses in your
personal life (e.g. domestic violence, providing care for a loved one at home).
o Compassion fatigue (reduced empathy) and burnout (feeling exhausted due to chronic work-related stress)
can increase vulnerability to vicarious trauma
o Those in helping professions can feel isolated as family and friends might not want to hear about the
stressful situations they encounter at work, and do to confidentiality/ privacy considerations some things
cannot be discussed outside of work.

 Symptoms of vicarious trauma can include intrusive thoughts and imagery about those events, avoidance of things
related to the events, feeling discouraged about the world, anxiety (e.g. tension, restlessness, racing thoughts,
feelings of dread, elevated heart rate, difficulty sleeping), and changes to mood (sadness, fatigue, irritability,
hopelessness, withdrawal from family and friends, changes to appetite, loss of interest in activities), similar to what
people suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) experience.

 If it persists vicarious trauma can cause difficulties functioning at work and home, and evolve into mental and
physical health issues, relationship problems, increased absenteeism and attrition (helpers leaving the field).

Some ways to prevent and respond to vicarious trauma include:

Debrief with colleagues or a supervisor on a regular basis and after incidents at work

Routinely and proactively practice good self-care

Set realistic goals, expectations and boundaries for yourself

Have some quiet time — being in nature, writing in a journal, meditating

Recognize and appreciate the hard work you do

Get enough rest

Exercise often — even short walks are very helpful for coping with stress

Eat healthy and drink lots of water

Develop appropriate outlets for difficult emotions – talk with someone you trust, journal, exercise to
relieve frustration

Check how you are coping — ask others for their opinion on how they see you coping. This may help
provide some insight. ( member, friend)

Get more support if you find symptoms of vicarious trauma increase or persists

I am lighthouse rather than lifeboat. I do not rescue, but instead help others to find their way to shore, guiding them by my example.

-Modern affirmation

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