What it's like to work in the shadows of trauma

Pete White was ready to serve his country when the RAF deployed him to Afghanistan in 2011 as a communications engineer, responsible for maintenance work on classified computers. 

Only four weeks after landing, the 22-year-old was transferred to perform the role of a ‘night watchkeeper’. 

‘We would get a report that was effectively a kind of a who, what, why, when, how, anytime there was a British casualty,’ Pete explains. ‘I would take the images and videos that were sent in and put them into a PowerPoint presentation to create a picture of what had happened.’ 

After compiling the report, he would then send it to his superior officers to review. ‘I assume it was some kind of intelligence type thing.’

As he sat at his computer to work, hunched over the computer glaring at his screen, Pete would sort through a variety of graphic images and videos of violence against British forces and Afghan civilians. 

‘There were a lot of incidents where vehicles had been blown up by IEDs,’ he remembers. ‘And then an instance where a hand grenade was thrown over the wall of our compound by the Taliban, fatally injuring one of our guys.’ 

He also recalls witnessing a young Afghan child who had been burned, shot, and killed by the Taliban and a soldier who had been shot through the neck, later dying.

‘At the time, I mostly felt quite numb – for the large part, I disassociated,’ Pete admits. ‘It’s very much a head down and crack on with the job you have to do.’

Even though Pete hadn’t experienced the trauma of these incidents firsthand, witnessing such atrocities and immersing himself in the details of each event made him feel, in his words, ‘part of that story’.

However, instead of recognising the signs of vicarious trauma – a condition where someone is impacted through the feelings or actions of another person’s lived traumatic experience – Pete suppressed his emotions with food. 

‘We were sent a lot of food packages from family and friends,’ he recalls. ‘I would binge eat through these parcels in the night and then make myself throw up. It wasn’t bulimia, it was just a coping strategy.’ 

At that point, Pete didn’t think his behaviour was unusual in any way and had no idea he was suffering from a condition that affects hundreds of thousands of people across the globe. 

‘Primary trauma happens directly to a person,’ explains counsellor Cate Harding-Jones, who has worked with clients suffering from severe responses to distressing and disturbing events. ‘Vicarious trauma does not happen directly to a person, but is the cumulative impact of working with traumatised people. The event didn’t happen to them, but they may experience some of the physical and psychological effects without experiencing the direct event or experience itself.’ 

Vicarious trauma looks very much like primary trauma, with consequences oftentimes just as intense. ‘It’s because imagining, hearing, seeing, and empathising with the emotions of trauma can be experienced by the body and brain just as powerfully,’ Cate adds. ‘It can negatively affect a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and health.’  

Symptoms will look different for each person, but may include an altered worldview, feelings of anger and detachment, hypervigilance, aggression, insomnia, and chronic pain. 

Following 10 months at the post, Pete became responsible for moving data between computer systems. Many of the videos he transferred depicted Afghan insurgents being blown up. ‘I just started to watch this stuff repeatedly, because for me – it was payback,’ he admits. ‘I got pleasure from it, so it became a sort of self-harm.’

After being there for five months and seeing hundreds of graphic images he couldn’t erase from his memory, Pete’s time in Afghanistan had come to an end  and he flew home to his then-fiancé in Shropshire. 

‘I don’t remember a big part of that time of my life – I was quite distant,’ he recalls, adding that he only shared sparse details of his work to his closest friends and family in a bid to protect them from all he was internalising. 

When his wife noticed his growing distance, she suggested he talk to someone. ‘I ignored all of that, saying I was fine, though,’ Pete admits.

But he was far from fine and went on to be prescribed anti-depressants as he suffered from severe depression on and off for five years, bouncing between appointments within the military mental health care.

‘I started to have trouble sleeping and would wake in the night a lot, not ever quite sure why, but I think it was nightmares,’ he recalls. ‘I was quite angry at the time – not just at bad guys in Afghanistan, but also at the world. I would snap at people and lash out over nothing.’

As his mental health spiralled and his anger toward Afghans grew, Pete began to experience psychotic episodes. He would often zone out in busy environments or become convinced that people he passed in the street were terrorists. Even a trip to the supermarket could cause great anxiety.

‘There was one day when I was in the cereal aisle and my mind was blown by the choice,’ he explains. ‘Even though I’d come from this place where people were dying, where it was barren, to see hundreds of options… it took a lot to get used to.’

Shortly after, Pete was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of vicarious trauma. ‘They changed my medications, prescribed me a trauma-focussed therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and signed me up for CBT,’ Pete says. ‘That is when things finally started to change.’

Now 34, Pete runs his own company, consulting businesses on how to support the mental health of their workforce. 

‘What I went through was awful and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,’ he says. ‘But it’s led me to where I am today and to have the life I live and I love.’

With many employees heading back to work this year following two years of collective trauma at the hands of the pandemic and worldwide chaos, some will find they are suffering with the effects of vicarious trauma due to the nature and responsibilities of their jobs.

‘Those working in the helping professions tend to be at most risk of vicarious trauma,’ explains counsellor Cate Harding-Jones. ‘Health professionals, social workers, case workers, mental health workers, emergency services, housing officers, legal professionals, armed forces, forensics – the list of people who could be affected goes on and on.’

When Jamie* interviewed for the role of an IGVA (Independent Gender Based Violence Advocate) at a domestic abuse charity in November 2019, she was open about her lack of experience in the field. 

The job would entail working in a service supporting women from minoritised communities who were at the highest risk of harm or homicide from domestic abuse. Given that Jamie was from Lithuania, a language many of the women in the service spoke, she was hired and promised training and support on the job. 

‘I worked with colleagues who had more experience than I did and a supportive manager who was very knowledgeable,’ Jamie says, recalling all she learned in those early days.

However, when the pandemic hit, Jamie primarily worked from home supporting women over the phone rather than on a one-to-one basis. ‘I was taking calls with survivors and expected to guide them through the criminal justice system, civil courts, housing, welfare, and benefits – all which were really complex,’ Jamie remembers.

But the most taxing part of the job was the emotional toll of listening to the stories of women who had or were currently experiencing domestic abuse. ‘When a client is referred into a service, you have to contact them, or at least attempt to make contact, within 24 hours. We would then complete a risk assessment with a series of questions. How afraid are you of your partner? Have you ever been seriously injured? Have you experienced sexual abuse, strangulation, isolation? Have you ever been hurt by an object? Have your children been harmed?’

If clients answered ‘yes’ to any questions, Jamie would probe further to find out more details. ‘You just had to get on with it,’ she admits.

Most of the women she supported suffered with serious mental issues resulting from their trauma. ‘One of the most difficult things for me was knowing there was basically no avenue for immediate mental health support for these women,’ Jamie recalls. ‘You become the only professional in their life who they can trust and talk to.’

As Jamie listened to alleviate the pain of other women, she noticed herself struggling with stress. ‘I just became consumed by the job,’ the 28-year-old says. ‘I was in a constant state of tension, which led to a repetitive strain injury. I frequently thought about the women I was supporting and wasn’t able to switch off. Even thinking about it now, I feel my body get into a heightened physical state – my voice catching, shallow breathing.’

The burden of supporting women with such complex trauma and needs even began to be felt by those closest to her. Jamie’s partner often told her she should quit her job. ‘I wasn’t very present in my relationships,’ she admits. She remembers phone calls to her mum where she would feel incredibly anxious as she talked about ‘work stress’. 

A lack of funding meant that outside support for staff was sparse, so after seeing her doctor, in August 2020, Jamie was diagnosed with feelings of anxiety and depression, and signed her off from work for six weeks.

Despite her bosses transferring her to a less ‘frontline’ role on her return in a bid to help her adjust back into the organisation, the vicarious trauma she’d experienced as a support worker had left Jamie completely burnt out and she resigned in October 2021.

However, although she is relieved not to be working in such a pressured environment, she insists it wasn’t all terrible. ‘I learned so much about people from that job,’ says Jamie. ‘The work was so meaningful. But I just lost faith in the fact that I would have been able to have a healthy working life in the organisation.’  

According to Cate, while no one is immune to vicarious trauma, there are factors sure to make people more vulnerable. ‘Those who work with children and the most disadvantaged or underrepresented in society tend to be deeply impacted by vicarious trauma,’ she explains. ‘But it also could depend on whether the professional is feeling overworked, stressed at home, has a history of trauma, uses good coping strategies, and is surrounded by a support network.’

When employers don’t understand, are under resourced, or simply underestimate the effect vicarious trauma has on workers, Cate says ‘there will be problems’ for those vulnerable to the effects. 

When Becki Sams began a job answering phone calls at an organisation providing long term care for people with addiction issues, she felt she was making a real difference. The 29-year-old had previously supported people with autism but changed jobs in 2018 to work with a slightly different client group, feeling her empathetic nature would fit well in the new role. 

‘I was the first person that people would speak to when they wanted to get help for whatever it was that they were struggling with in terms of their addiction,’ she explains.

‘I’d say that 95 per cent of the time, they would also tell me about their struggles with mental health and the trauma they have faced – domestic abuse, sexual violence, emotional abuse. I think almost every person had stories like that and once they had admitted their struggles with addiction then the box just opened, and they just wanted to talk about all that was happening to them.’

Every day, from 9-5, Becki took phone calls from people desperate for help with their alcohol, illegal substance, or prescribed medication addictions. After speaking to her, they would be referred on for further support, but she was left to process the hundreds of stories of trauma she’d heard alone.

Unfortunately for Becki, not only were her bosses unaware of the level of emotion distress she was dealing with, but she was also not told there was help available to her if she asked for it. 

‘I didn’t receive enough training, support, or supervision,’ Becki says, adding that she assumes it wasn’t offered because her role wasn’t intended to be particularly emotionally tolling. ‘I wasn’t necessarily there to provide emotional support, just empathy and hear people out. But I’m not sure that anybody realised what was being said to us and no one really checked in with us.’

If someone had asked Becki about how she was coping with what she was hearing over the phone – the suicidal thoughts, self-harm confessions, or childhood abuse memories – they would have found she was struggling with anxiety and consistent panic attacks. ’At the time, I just thought I was overworking or not taking enough breaks,’ she recalls.

However, the stories she heard of the trauma endured by those calling in to the helpline slowly took their toll.  

‘I was becoming more and more withrdawn,’ she remembers, describing how sudden panic attacks would often overwhelm her. ‘I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I might pass out or lose control of my body.

‘I had used to walk through the world with confidence but hearing some of the stuff that was happening changed my perspective. I started to see it as a very unsafe, horrible place.’

After just six months, Becki left her telephone support role and it was only then that she was able to reflect on the vicarious trauma she experienced and how to prevent it in her future work. ‘I wanted to fix everyone,’ she admits. ‘But now I see it isn’t my job to do that. Instead, I can be there in a supportive role without absorbing everything that someone tells me and making it my own problem.’

While there will always be a need for people to take on roles that could be highly traumatic for some, there also needs to be a culture of recognition and support within organisations, explains Cate. 

‘This is vital in order for individuals to be able to effectively recognise the symptoms, feel able to ask for help, and receive appropriate support,’ she explains, warning that without it there will be serious repercussions. 

‘Burnout, compassion fatigue are common responses that could led to absence from the job and ineffective working. While it is an understandable reaction to supporting traumatised people, it is important to remember that if left unattended, vicarious trauma is dangerous, invasive and toxic. 

‘It impacts on mind, body and relationships, and can cause damaging changes in behaviour and life satisfaction. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup.’

How To Guard Yourself Against Vicarious Trauma

If you work in an environment that might make you susceptible to secondary trauma, counsellor Cate Harding-Jones offers this advice:

  • Keep a manageable and sustainable workload.
  • Use support networks to reduce the sense of isolation, keep accountable, feel understood, and get advice.
  • Have a work-life balance by having enjoyable and meaningful life experiences outside of work.
  • Balance your case load with ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ clients.
  • Take regular time off, spreading annual leave throughout the year.
  • Pursue other interests and hobbies.
  • Take advantage of supervision offered by your employer.
  • Maintain boundaries, reminding yourself of what is yours and what is theirs.
  • Distract yourself after sessions.
  • Invest in your physical and emotional health.

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