Working at Home With Trauma: How to Protect Yourself, Others and Your Employees

Written by Dr Caroline Marlow, Chartered Psychologist and Director of L&M Consulting Ltd. It was published by the Law Society (11.12.2020) but adapted here for cross-industry consideration.

The Corona Pandemic has brought constant change in how our work and personal lives interplay, whilst many companies consider making home working permanent. Further, it has led to an unprecedented awareness of differences in personal circumstance and their potential to affect our mental health and ability to thrive. But right now, those working at home with trauma-related material require our particular attention and support.

Home working increases the risk to those working with trauma.

People are at a greater risk of developing vicarious trauma (VT) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they have: regular or unexpected exposure to others’ trauma, experienced personal trauma, a relevant change in personal circumstance, and other life stressors. Home working can increase this risk as:
 

… And to others in the home.
In particular, children and others with the above mentioned risk factors need protection against direct exposure to trauma-related material and indirect exposure through the display of negative emotions by the individual working with trauma.

So how can those exposed help themselves and what is the role of their managers and employers?
My previous blog, Work-Related Vicarious Trauma and PTSD: What to Know and Do highlighted the symptoms of VT/PTSD, and provided guidance for those exposed to trauma, their colleagues and employers. This remains a basis for appropriate support, but the following should also be acted upon to enable a collaborative approach to reducing the enhanced home-working risk: Its aim is to best promote sustainable psychological wellbeing and performance to everyone’s benefit.

What should I do if I am working at home with trauma exposure?

Implement your own system of PPE:

It can be difficult to separate work and personal space, tasks and time, especially when restrictive measures change our routines, responsibilities and support structures. Maintaining psychological wellbeing and being effective across your roles requires self-compassion, proactive self-care, and being realistic about what you can achieve.
 
1. Find an Effective Daily Structure: Consider when you are, and how to be, at your most productive. Also, rate the exposure-risk of different tasks to yourself and others at home, and consider how best to fit these around your required ‘home’ tasks and your daily mood and energy fluctuations.
 
2. Have Extra Self-care Rules. In addition to meeting your normal exercise, healthy eating, sleep and social connection needs:

  • Be workstation safe: Correctly configure your workstation as you can and move/change position regularly to prevent musculoskeletal problems. Take 5-10min screen (eye) breaks every hour and have proper meal breaks.
  • If possible, work in natural day light and go outside each day to promote clearer thinking, body regulation and effective sleep.
  • Properly switch off from work and your screens every day and particularly before bedtime. Beware of reduced social opportunity leading to a greater reliance on social media and work intensification, i.e., working longer hours, especially if you live on your own.

3. Communicate Effectively: Honestly discuss your needs and concerns with your employer so that they can fulfil their duty of care: Likewise with your colleagues so that you can support each other. Be proactive in finding an acceptable balance of needs. Negotiate, suggest practical solutions and aim to mitigate knock-on implications. Also, let colleagues know when you are ‘on duty’, and likewise respect your colleagues’ availability requests.

Do what you can to prevent other’s exposure to trauma-related material.
 
1. Work Area Safety: Have strict rules about others approaching your workspace. Know and follow data protection legislation, e.g. keep a clear desk, use password protection, lock cabinets. Use privacy equipment, e.g., filter films to reduce screen viewing angles and telephone headsets.
 
2. Emotional Overspill: Have a ‘clean down’ routine that helps you switch between roles and reduce emotional overspill to others. E.g., have a shower or walk around the block before family meals or socialising with friends.
Reflect honestly and regularly on how your physical and mental capacity fluctuates daily and over the longer term. Ask trusted others if they notice any concerning differences in you, and also whether your work is impacting upon them and others. Use this information to reflect on the above and to motivate constructive change.

 

What should employers do to support those home working with trauma exposure?

Adhere to the 4As…

In addition to the previously identified increased VT/PTSD risks, accept that:
 

  • VT is an occupational hazard that is not mitigated by employee experience, persona, good will and role specification.
  • People experience change differently and everyone’s situation is different; even situations that appear similar can have different challenges, needs, or indeed, benefits.
  • That employees might not be able to do what they can in the office, but that they will do their best.
To fulfil your statutory duty of care, VT/PTSD risk assessment, psychological health surveillance and a work-related stress assessment (e.g., HSE Management Standards) should occur regularly and in anticipation of / response to any change in an employee’s role, work environment and personal situation. When determining whether and how often a trauma-exposed employee should work at home or the kind and amount of work they are allocated, you should consider:
 

  • Who is in the home and when.
  • The employee’s ability to: separate work and personal space; ensure appropriate workstation set up, privacy, data protection and digital security; and access to equipment needed to protect others.
  • Any home working stressors that increase stress or reduce efficiency. E.g., additional financial costs of home-working, lesser equipment/slow internet connections, additional training needs.
  • Any personal situation that brings short or longer-term personal stress. E.g., family illness or care responsibilities, isolation.

Also, to ensure the comany’s wellbeing and performance throughout the inevitable changes, complete a broader cultural assessment to understand the factors that impinge or promote employees’ psychological wellbeing, and thus their ability to cope, thrive and perform optimally.

Address the Issues
Make adjustments in accordance with the risk assessment as fully as possible. As you do this:
 

  • Be flexible and compassionate in the support provided across individuals and over time.
  • Ensure that any change in access to psychological support and sickness-absence mechanisms are understood.
  • Be aware that changes intended to protect an employee, e.g., to workload, role or responsibility might:
    – Cause concern, e.g., of job security, threat to identity or self-worth, letting others down.
    – Have negative implications for others. E.g., workload increases for those with a ‘safer’ home environment or in the office will bring greater exposure-related risks.
    Ensure that you act to mitigate these.

Communicate and Support:
A trusting employee-manager and employee-firm relationship are essential if everyone’s mutual aim of wellbeing and performance are to be achieved. Both the manager and firm should remove any barriers to honest communication (e.g., concerns relating to job security, case-allocation, promotion), and ensure that actions and words give congruent messages of support.

Managers should have frequent 1-2-1 communication with employees. Here, show genuine concern by actively listening to, and seeking to support, employees’ needs, whist being cautious against micromanagement and excessive surveillance. Effective discussions should:
 

  • Assist employees in gaining an appropriate life/work structure. Be sensitive to changes in personal and emotional demands, and aware of signs of work intensification, presenteeism and sickness.
  • Agree realistic and mutually acceptable expectations for, and indicators of, success. Set work-related tasks, goals and evaluation procedures accordingly.
  • Complement formal risk assessments by monitoring the effectiveness of supportive measures and providing consultation on further change/support measures that affect them.

Companies should give full consideration as to who is best placed to develop this trusting relationship and provide such managerial support: The required skills are different to those required to excel in a legal field. Further, companies should ensure that managers have the autonomy and resources to support their team, and that the managers themselves are fully supported in role time allocation and support.

Our psychological wellbeing is boosted when we are feel that we are contributing to something worthwhile, and valued both as an individual and as part of a community. Ensure that messages and actions give regular and consistent messages of appreciation for those who work with trauma. In all, the greater the mental and physical resources, the greater resilience to trauma exposure.