Be aware of ‘secondary trauma’ among key workers, IOSH urges

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Employers must be aware of and understand the symptoms of ‘secondary trauma’ and ensure those who have experienced distressing circumstances are offered support, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has said.

It warned that support and recognition of symptoms in key workers, particularly those in healthcare settings, was essential as the UK moves into the recovery stage of the coronavirus pandemic. Adequate mental health support and return-to-work processes, in particular, needed to be introduced.

Secondary trauma describes when an individual has been exposed to difficult or disturbing images or events, whether directly or indirectly.

It can often go unrecognised, and therefore untreated, for long periods of time and individuals can experience physical, behavioural and emotional or psychological symptoms. Physical symptoms, for example, can include exhaustion, insomnia, and headaches, whilst emotional or psychological signs can range from a reduced appetite to negative or suicidal thoughts.

IOSH chief executive Bev Messinger said: “We believe it is essential to protect workers’ physical and mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. Healthcare workers and others on the frontline must have adequate mental health support and return-to-work processes throughout these challenging times.

“Many workers are also working from home and may begin to experience a range of emotions including a loss of control, boredom, frustration and loneliness, therefore occupational safety and health professionals have important roles in helping organisations and governments manage wellbeing risks during this pandemic.”

Researchers at the Hellenic Mediterranean University in Crete, Greece, highlighted the impact the pandemic may have on health workers in a recent research paper.

They wrote: “Healthcare professionals are at the frontline of this crisis and are those who are actively engaged in the process of providing care for patients with Covid-19 while managing critical issues daily (e.g, lack of hospital facilities, personal protection measures, exhausting working hours, fear of contagion and spreading the virus).

“Most of the reports and studies have examined the obvious negative outcomes on health professionals, such as increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Vicarious traumatisation, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue or ‘cost of caring’ have all been used interchangeably – despite the nuanced differences – to describe the detrimental effects of being exposed to the trauma reports of others and the empathic engagement with their traumatic experiences.

“Undoubtedly, the exacerbation of existing or the onset of new mental health symptoms and disorders should be a priority and a serious public concern.”

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