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Protecting Staff from Vicarious Trauma

Guidelines for Organisations when Protecting their Staff from Vicarious Trauma

Protecting the Protectors: Support for content moderators, analysts, researchers and journalists.

UK’s draft Online Safety Bill (OSB) states that social media firms will have to remove harmful content quickly or face the possibility of multibillion pound fines (Wakefield, 2021).

‘At the Online Harms Foundation, we don’t believe that we should just be asking for content to be removed, we also think that there needs to be much more substantial efforts to understand why people are doing this and what we can be done about it’ (CEO, Adam Hadley, Tech Against Terrorism).

One of our client organisations, Tech Against Terrorism http://www.techagainstterrorism.org, supports the global tech industry tackle terrorist and violent extremist exploitation of the internet, whilst respecting human rights. This exposes their analysts to violent and graphic terrorist material on a regular basis, highlighting the need for tailored psychological support to practitioners working to counter harmful material online.

Tech platform content moderators, researchers and analysts are working to better understand the threats posed by harmful online content. This inevitably involves exposure to extreme content, and may require responding to real-time incidents of a violent nature such as the livestreaming of terrorist attacks. Organisations have a legal and ethical duty of care to their staff, including being aware of staff whose work exposes them to traumatic material, and applying levels of risk to specific roles.

Management support
Managers need to become confident in supporting individuals with mental health issues, and particularly staff impacted by vicarious trauma through viewing traumatic material at work. Below we have listed some points for managers to consider in supporting the duty of care of staff.

  • Become Trauma Informed – Managers need to attend a ‘Trauma awareness’, and ‘Mental Health Awareness’ training, to understand the mechanics of stress and trauma, identify the warning signs, and feel confident in how to mitigate retraumatising staff.
  • Normalise – Create a common language to speak about mental health, speak openly about the impact of work on staff wellbeing and discuss potential triggers and trigger warnings.
  • Rotation of work – Make sure there is a rotation for the high-intensity work between staff. If staff are having an off-day or get exposed to something upsetting, they can be assigned to less challenging content or work that allows a different perspective and focus.
  • Encourage healthy working practices – Make sure your staff are taking regular wellbeing breaks. Some organisations offer a wellbeing hour each week, where staff can take time off to take care of their mental health, or even wellbeing days. Monitor staff’s working hours. As a manager make sure you organise wellbeing check-ins with staff, where the focus is not task orientated, but welfare focused.
  • Lead by example – At FD Consultants when we offer management and leadership training programmes, we always prioritse ‘Personal Resilience’, before teaching managers how to look after others. As managers you need to role model healthy self-care. Stress is contagious, when there is a stressed manager, the team is often stressed.
  • Signposting – Communicate regular reminders to staff of the support available. Who are your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)? How many counselling sessions do they offer? Who do you signpost for trauma specialist help? Does your organisation have Psychological First Aid (PFA) peer supporters or a welfare team? If the organisation does have a contract with a large EAP, vet them regularly, ask for regular feedback, and carry out ‘secret shopper activities. Try these services out for your own support, so when you signpost staff, you have an in-depth knowledge of how they work.
  • Validate and Praise – This was something we advised managers do more of during the pandemic. When staff are working in high intensity roles and are managing a heavy workloads their stress levels are going to be heightened. When we activate our stress cycle, we start to berate ourselves, therefore the need for praise is greater during these times.
  • Staff should have the option to say ‘no’ when covering certain material. We may not know what trauma people have experienced in their history, or what they might currently be dealing with. Therefore, certain material may be triggering. As therapists we could be working with historical unprocessed traumas that have been triggered by more recent traumatic events.
  • Prepare new staff for the nature of the work they will be asked to do. We have heard managers ‘shy away’ from telling staff about the details or specifics of the level of exposure. It is important that people are aware of this, so they can make an informed decision about the work (DART, 2017).

Organisational support

A landmark ruling by an Australian court has put news media companies on notice as they will face potential findings of negligence and subsequent compensation claims if they fail to exercise a reasonable duty of care to journalists who cover traumatic events (Ricketson, 2019).

Organisations have a legal and ethical duty to protect staff from work hazard’s that may cause harm to their mental health. If there is risk of harm, due to the nature of work, then appropriate and evidence-based psychological support services need to be easily accessible. The high-profile legal case in 2020, resulting in Facebook paying millions in compensations to staff suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) due to exposure to traumatic material online (Paul, K. 2020), has steered many organisations to reach out for our specialist trauma support services https://fdconsultants.net/services/trauma-and-crisis-support/. Below are some of our recommendations for organisation when protecting staff duty of care.

  • Access to professional trauma support services
    • Allow staff who are identified in ‘high-risk’ roles access to regular supervision (monthly or 6-weekly).
    • Provide trauma specialist counselling. This must include therapists accredited in EMDR and TF-CBT (WHO, APA & NICE). Check with your EAP whether their service includes EMDR therapy, as this is often charged as a separate service.
    • Provide yearly ‘Psychological Screening’ for staff in high-risk roles.
  • Provide training for all staff.
    • At induction stage include a ‘stress management and resilience building workshop’
    • Offer a ‘Trauma Awareness’ workshop for staff exposed to trauma or supporting staff who are. Make sure staff are Trauma Informed and have a refresher training every two years.
    • Provide Management training in ‘Mental Health Awareness’ so managers can identify the early warning signs of staff that may be struggling and feel confident when signposting staff to the most appropriate services.
  • Recruiting – Job descriptions should be clear about the challenges staff, in particular roles, will face, therefore providing staff with the choice to opt-out.
  • Policies and Procedures – Seek out evidence of clear, structured and documented wellbeing policies with a dedicated team to implement them, that includes, in detail, how to support someone whose role exposes them to traumatic material. This should include a suicide prevention plan
  • Creating a culture of safety – Be knowledgeable about how to create psychologically safe working environments, promoting a healthy organisational culture. For more information see our free webinar of psychological safe management: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIu-pjDQELU
  • Embed a Trauma Management Programme – Ensure that your organisation has a comprehensive Trauma Management Programme embedded. For a detailed description of what this should include reference: Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Roadmap of Trauma and Critical Incident Care (Dunkley, 2018) https://tinyurl.com/ydayx5le
  • Acts of kindness – At FD Consultants we like to carry out small acts of kindness. Think about how your organisation can do this. Some organisations treat their staff to Monday coffee mornings, or Pizza Thursdays, for example. Obviously, this is more challenging when many of us are working in a hybrid fashion. Some organisations sent their staff sun lamps during the winter period or gift vouchers through the pandemic. Some of FD Consultants acts of kindness included donating books to schools, raising money for charities, and delivered pamper packages to staff and clients.

If you employ content moderators, forensic analysis, researchers, or anyone whose work exposes them to traumatic material, please speak to FD Consultants, where we can guide your organisation in best practice and high-quality care.

For them to protect us, we need to protect them.

Fiona Dunkley, MBACP (Snr. Accred.) UKRCP. ESTSS. EMDR.
Founder FD Consultants – Psychosocial Support & Trauma Specialist Services
W: https://fdconsultants.net

July 2023


Work with FD Consultants

FD Consultants is here to help any organisation looking to offer their staff with effective, empathetic, and collaborative psychological support. We are a source of hope and strength when it feels like you haven’t got any left. Reach out to our team of specialists today to discuss the situation you or your workplace is facing, and let us find a proven, evidence-based solution to navigate you through this challenging period.

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