Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, key workers such as healthcare professionals have been working on the front lines to treat and care for patients who have or may have been exposed to the virus.
While 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 (IOSH) has called for the closer safeguarding of key workers' psychological health as a result of Covid-19-related secondary trauma.
Secondary traumatic stress (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. While 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 after the pandemic is essential.
IOSH 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 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 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 some 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.