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Working at home with trauma: how to protect yourself, your employees and others
Caroline Marlow, psychologist, discusses what can be done if you are working at home with trauma exposure.
The foreseeable future promises constant change in how our work and personal lives interplay, whilst many law firms consider making home working permanent. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented awareness of differences in personal circumstances and how they can affect our mental health and ability to thrive. Right now, those working at home with trauma-related material need 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
- been through a relevant change in their personal circumstances
- experienced other life stressors
Home working can increase this risk as the blurring of work and personal space, time and life boundaries makes it harder to get the essential environmental, social and emotional break and safe haven from trauma-related work.
The colleague support essential for psycho-social wellbeing and resilience is also less readily available and often diminished.
…And to others in the home
In particular, children and others with the risk factors listed above need protection from being directly exposed to trauma-related material and indirectly exposed from seeing negative emotions from the individual working with trauma.
How can lawyers help themselves and what is the role of their managers and employers?
My previous blog, Trauma exposure in law: what you need 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.
Next, how to enable a collaborative approach to reducing the enhanced home-working risk.
What should I do if I am working at home with trauma exposure?
Implement your own system of PPE: Protect yourself, Protect others, Evaluate.
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 and how you can be at your most productive. Rate the exposure risk to yourself and others of different tasks, and consider how best to fit them around your ‘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 and move or change position regularly to prevent musculoskeletal problems. Take five to 10-minute screen (eye) breaks every hour and have proper meal breaks
- if possible, work in natural daylight and go outside each day to promote clearer thinking, body regulation and better 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 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, and 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 respect your colleagues’ availability requests.
Protect others at home
Do what you can to prevent others being exposed to trauma-related material.
1. Work area safety: Have strict rules about others approaching your workspace. Know and follow data protection legislation, for example keep a clear desk, use password protection, lock cabinets. Use privacy equipment, such as 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. For example, 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 and to motivate constructive change.
What should law firms and employers do to support those home working with trauma exposure?
Follow the 4As: Accept, Assess, Adapt, Appreciate.
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 (i.e. portrayed resilience/coping), good will or 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
- employees might not be able to do what they can in the office, but they will do their best
To fulfil your statutory duty of care, you should do a VT/PTSD risk assessment, psychological health surveillance and a work-related stress assessment (such as HSE Management Standards) regularly, and whenever the employee’s role, work environment or personal situation changes.
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 equipment needed to protect others
- any home working stressors that increase stress or reduce efficiency, such as additional financial costs of home working, poorer quality equipment, slow internet connections, or additional training needs
- any personal situation that brings short or longer-term personal stress such as family illness or care responsibilities, or isolation
Also, to ensure the firm’s wellbeing and performance throughout the inevitable changes, complete a broader cultural assessment to understand the factors that affect employees’ psychological wellbeing, and thus their ability to cope, thrive and perform optimally.
Adapt and act to protect
1. Address the issues identified in 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 employees understand any change in access to psychological support and sickness-absence mechanisms
- be aware that changes intended to protect an employee, such as changes to workload, role or responsibility, might:
- cause concern, for example about job security, threat to identity or self-worth, or letting others down
- have negative implications for others, for example if workload is increased for those with a ‘safer’ home environment or those working in the office this will increase exposure-related risks
Ensure that you act to mitigate these.
2. Communicate and support: A trusting employee-manager and employee-firm relationship is essential if everyone’s mutual aim of wellbeing and performance is to be achieved. Both the manager and the firm should remove any barriers to honest communication (for example, concerns about job security, case allocation or promotion), and make sure that their actions and words are consistent.
Managers should have frequent one-to-one communication with employees. Here, show genuine concern by actively listening and seeking to support employees’ needs, whilst being cautious to avoid micromanagement and excessive surveillance. Effective discussions should:
- help employees gain 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. Use these to set work-related tasks, goals and evaluation procedures
- complement formal risk assessments by monitoring the effectiveness of supportive measures and consulting employees about them
Firms should carefully consider who is best placed to develop this trusting relationship and provide managerial support. The skills needed are different from those needed to excel in a legal field. Firms should ensure that managers have the autonomy and resources to support their team, and that the managers themselves are fully supported.
Our psychological wellbeing is boosted when we feel 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.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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