Secondary trauma and responsibility of organizations

The morning that my husband Joel told me he could not leave the compound for fear of getting shot and dying I knew we would not be able to finish our three-year MCC term in South Sudan. Joel and I lived in a quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of town where the sounds of drumming in the evening were far more common than gunshots. However, our two years of working as Peace and Justice Coordinators for a Catholic Diocese had exposed us to numerous stories of horror, trauma and struggle. Daily we witnessed the devastating impact that the 22-year civil war had on individuals, families and communities.

During our first months in South Sudan we visited numerous communities to learn about Sudanese perspectives on peace and justice. These visits highlighted for us the unaddressed trauma in every community. The effects of trauma could be observed in high rates of domestic abuse, poor sleeping patterns and hyper-arousal, meaning that angry disputes could quickly turn physically abusive. In order to address this trauma I was trained in basic trauma awareness and positive coping techniques that could be easily understood and passed from one person to another. While in the midst of this work I did not realize the extent to which our job and life in South Sudan, where low-level violence was an everyday reality, were affecting my own husband.

People respond to trauma differently. While our bodies will always go into survival mode during a traumatic event, how we process the event afterwards differs from person to person. It depends on our age, past experiences, level of self-awareness, support systems and knowledge of trauma. The same is true when hearing about traumatic events.

Secondary, or vicarious, trauma can develop when there has been indirect exposure to trauma through a firsthand account or narrative. The symptoms of secondary trauma may include negative changes in a person’s professional conduct, their worldviews, self-capacities and sense of security. Joel’s belief that it was dangerous to leave our home was one of many indicators that made me realize he was suffering from secondary trauma due to the nature of our work and that we could no longer be helpful in our peacebuilding roles.

Many organizations who work with traumatized populations are aware of their responsibilities to the people they work with and their workers. These organizations emphasize self-care for employees to reduce the risk of excess stress and burnout. Self-care, such as quality time with friends and family, rest, exercise and spiritual practices, has also been proven to mitigate the risk of secondary trauma. However, studies have shown that when workers are solely responsible for organizing and prioritizing their own self-care, these practices often fall to the wayside. This could be because workers feel that their suffering is less relevant than the people whom they are working with and therefore do not consider making time for self-care an important aspect of their jobs. Scholars have argued that these findings point to the need for organizations to consider employee self-care as an organizational, rather than individual, responsibility.

Structural changes in work places to create trauma-informed environments means giving priority to worker safety. Research has found that a trauma-informed work place provides organizational, supervisory and peer support, as well as trauma-informed professional development for all staff. Support and awareness throughout the entire system of an organization creates numerous safeguards to spot early signs of secondary trauma, as symptoms can develop rapidly. Trauma-informed professional development provides employees with a framework and common language to voice their experiences and feelings. These measures increase worker satisfaction while decreasing compassion fatigue. This in turn allows workers to provide trauma-informed care to the people for whom they are working. Trauma-informed care increases trauma-informed programming, increases recovery from trauma symptoms and decreases the risk of re-traumatization. Ultimately, a trauma-informed organization will benefit from a trickledown effect for increased success in their programs.

Our experience in South Sudan showed me that I still had much to learn and understand about trauma, organizational leadership and myself. Life is not simple enough to put in place organizational policies that prevent hardship and heartache. MCC had policies to equip us with life in South Sudan’s post-conflict environment. We were given scheduled rest periods out of the country, a food budget to keep us well fed and numerous talks on self-care. I had been trained in trauma awareness. Yet we still found ourselves broken, in various ways, by the work we had come to do, unable to move forward—or, at least, out of the compound. Perhaps this is the most important thing to understand about people, organizations and trauma—we break. By understanding what caused the brokenness we can heal.

Heather Peters and her husband Joel recently welcomed their first child, Rehema. Heather is on maternity leave from her position as Restorative Justice Coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan.

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