Secondary Trauma recognition for key workers is essential for recovery says official body

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, key workers including Healthcare professionals have been working on the front lines to treat and care for patients who have or may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Whilst healthcare workers, in particular, have had to manage critical issues daily such as lack of hospital facilities, personal protection measures and exhausting working hours the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health have called for the closer safeguarding of key workers psychological health as a result of Covid-19 related secondary trauma.

Secondary Trauma (STS) is the technical term for when an individual has been exposed to difficult or disturbing images or events, whether it be directly or indirectly.

This can occur by coming into contact with material that has negatively impacted your wellbeing. Whilst occupational secondary trauma is not a new concept with journalists, police officers and crime scene investigators being the professionals most likely to suffer from symptoms of secondary trauma, the safeguarding of key workers globally during and as we move into the recovery stage of this pandemic is essential.

The Institution of Occupational safety and health, 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.

The call for tailored-based interventions addressing the specific needs of diverse groups of health professionals has been reinforced by healthcare experts Argyroula E.Kalaitzaki, AlexandraTamiolaki and Michael Rovithis.

Their latest research, The healthcare professionals amidst COVID-19 pandemic: A perspective of resilience and posttraumatic growth highlights the cost of compassion fatigue:

“Secondary traumatic stress and 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”.

Due to the nature of this trauma often occurring indirectly recognising the symptoms of secondary trauma can be difficult and often go unrecognised by the individual and their peers for long periods of time.

The symptoms of secondary trauma can be broken into three sections: Physical warning signs, Behavioural signs and either emotional or psychological signs. Whilst the list of these symptoms is extensive it is important to remember that they are a signpost to what individuals may be experiencing and is not a checklist to assess the extent of someone’s negative experiences.

Physical symptoms, for example, can include exhaustion, insomnia, and headaches, whilst emotional or psychological signs can range from an impaired appetite and increased anxiety to negative or suicidal thoughts.

Whilst Argyroula E. Kalaitzaki et al’s research focuses on the notion of post-traumatic growth, the experts concluded:

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

If you are concerned about the wellbeing of yourself or another individual please contact Our Frontline which offers 24 hours support for key workers. Alternately if you are working outside of the UK please contact your unions designated Covid-19 hotline and speak to your employer so that they can best assist you throughout this process.

To access IOSH’s free resources on managing mental health and wellbeing during Covid-19 and to find out more about how your workplace can safeguard you during this time please visit their official Covid-19 guidance.