Dealing with workplace trauma

by Janie Smith30 Jul 2014
Lawyers may not be the first employees you think of when it comes to experiencing workplace trauma, but law firm Maurice Blackburn Lawyers realised its employees were being affected by dealing with traumatic cases and emotional clients.

Kate Dobbrick, the firm’s workplace wellbeing consultant, said that a couple of years ago, the organisation’s internal social worker noticed that the employees were talking about their experiences with clients in a way that “resonated with her from a vicarious trauma perspective and the experience she has to manage from her own perspective as a social worker”.

“She raised the issue with me and pointed out that it was a potential gap from a training and skills perspective. That was the initial flag. Based on that, I put together a working group with lawyers from different levels of the firm just to get a sense of what was going on from a ground level experience.”

Dobbrick said that from talking to the organisation’s leadership, it became apparent that the leaders with years of experience had built up their own coping strategies, but they were not aware if those lawyers with less experience had built up the resilience required to manage the impact of the work.

“They were really keen for us to provide the training and skills for our people, but also for them, so that they were able to support their people better in their teams.”

She said it quickly became evident that managing vicarious trauma was more than just a training issue because people were uncomfortable admitting that the work was affecting them.

“They thought of it almost as a weakness, thinking that they would be judged for not being able to hack the work. We realised that although training would be part of it, we needed to take a more systematic approach – looking at different initiatives we could implement from the recruitment stage and making sure people have the full information about the type of work we do, through to how we induct employees, the on-the-ground support that supervisors and teams provide each other through training and other support structures, and also having really good procedures and policies for people to use.”

Dobbrick said that while other employees like healthcare workers, social workers, psychologists, ambulance and police have processes in place for vicarious trauma, it’s quite new to the legal sector.

“A lot of our clients are suffering from post-traumatic stress. They’ve either been injured, wronged or suffered some form of loss, so the way they work with our employees means they’re often talking about their stories and it really triggers a lot of emotion and distress for them.

“Our lawyers are trained to be lawyers but at no point is there any upskilling or giving them the heads-up that they’re dealing with people who are financially troubled or dealing with family breakdowns. People don’t come to us with just their legal problem.”

She engaged the help of psychologist and vicarious trauma specialist Bernadette Hughes to develop training and procedures and debriefs for staff.

Dobbrick said lawyers were sometimes faced with potentially suicidal clients and part of the firm’s program is around having clear procedures to deal with such situations.

Maurice Blackburn is about to start a formal evaluation of the program, but HR general manager Anne Reeves said she had seen “a lift in conversation”.

“What we’re seeing is that people feel ok and safe to speak up and say that they need extra support. Work-related stress can cost organisations a lot of money in terms of absenteeism and high turnover.

“If we didn’t do anything, if we sat by and watched it happen, that would have made a poor result. We have a good healthy culture and it’s really an extension of that.”


  • by Catherine Cahill 30/07/2014 12:11:01 PM

    What a great response to an overlooked workplace issue I have worked in Health and in NFPs where some staff have really struggled with second hand trauma. Hats off to you for developing such an initiative. I really look forward to reading more about your processes and results.

  • by Batman of Brisbane 30/07/2014 1:32:20 PM

    I agree with Catherine's comments - even though the effects of bullying etc on witnesses is well known, this is still an often overlooked area of risk. HR Practitioners may be similarly exposed vicariously to the often stressful or tragic circumstances of others, e.g. employees dealing with bullying or harassment, personal loss, domestic violence, injury or serious illness, abusive clients, redundancies and the like. Health care professionals and front-line social workers may often have access to "Professional Supervision" and I strongly recommend that this is also extended to include HR and even line managers.

  • by Catherine Cahill 30/07/2014 1:38:22 PM

    Too true Batman! As HR professionals we can deal with some pretty awful situations - and we do seem to believe we have to just "deal with it". Maybe AHRi could help with this initiative.

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