First responders and essential workers have been crowned “heroes” as they keep our world turning – and people safe – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this nomenclature tends to overshadow the suffering that those on the frontlines experience. We sometimes consider heroes unflappably strong when in reality, they experience trauma just like anyone else and, at times, in greater measures. The best way to honor these first responders and essential workers is to acknowledge the challenges of their situation and make sure we support them.

One way to do this is to educate yourself on how witnessing human suffering on a daily basis can adversely affect an essential worker’s wellbeing. We’re talking about vicarious trauma, an occupational challenge for people working and volunteering in the fields of victim services, law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire services and other allied professions, due to their continuous exposure to victims of trauma and violence.

Why vicarious trauma is a hot-button issue right now.

Often referred to as compassion fatigue, burnout or even moral injury, vicarious trauma isn’t a new topic. It is resurfacing as a pivotal point of concern given the warlike nature of the fight against COVID-19.

The fatigue caused by working long hours in exhausting amounts of PPE, facing resource limitations and constantly making life-and-death decisions are just a few of the circumstances that can fuel vicarious trauma.

Essential workers also face the risk of bringing the virus home to their families in order to do their job, forcing some to live apart from their families in a stricter form of isolation.

Then, there is risk of infection itself. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that over 60,000 health care workers have been affected with COVID-19, and 321 have died as a result. This is a real fear – and tragic possibility – for those combatting the pandemic head on.

What to look for in yourself and others.

Vicarious trauma’s symptoms can be emotional or physical, as explained below. To achieve a successful approach to mitigating the condition’s effects, we must address both sides.

Emotional

  • Intense worry, anxiety or fear
  • Frequent crying
  • Trouble thinking clearly
  • Frightening thoughts or flashbacks
  • Anger, resentment or irritability
  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Isolation from family and friends

Physical

  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain and digestive issues
  • Feeling tired
  • Racing heart and sweating
  • Being very jumpy and easily startled

Experiencing vicarious trauma? Here are important steps to coping with the crisis.

First and foremost: it’s important to talk about what you’re experiencing and how it feels. Many people benefit from being able to talk about their feelings, get it out into the open and hear from others who are going through the same thing. This could be your friends who you’re Zooming with, your parents or grandparents who you’re talking to on the phone, or your coworkers who you see almost every day. Maintain healthy relationships and build a strong support system. Make time to unwind and remind yourself that strong feelings will fade. Try taking deep breaths. Strive to do activities you usually enjoy.

There’s a lot of hyperbole and false information floating around, which only feeds the uncertainty that can exacerbate vicarious trauma. But to the extent that you can, learn and share the facts about the virus. Although the reality of a situation may be difficult to accept, it is much better to be informed and feel assured in that knowledge that you have, rather than feel misguided or lost. Moreover, focus your research on reputable organizations like the CDC and World Health Organization (WHO), and limit overexposing yourself to the 24-hour news feed – something we warned clients against early on in this crisis.

And don’t forget to take care of your body in addition to your mind, which can in turn help your mental state. Try to eat healthy well-balanced meals, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Learn more about wellness strategies for mental health.

If you’re an employer, consider how you can create a healthier workplace.

Employers and leaders can observe and monitor the movement, activity and interactions among members of their shift or work team. When behaviors differ from the ‘norm,’ inquire and listen empathically. When observed symptoms persist, offer access to peer group support, an employee assistance program (EAP) or a chaplain so employees can share their personal concerns, anxieties or fears.

But your response should not be totally reactive. Employers and leaders should also:

  • Incorporate ‘stress breaks’ or ‘mindfulness moments’ as part of shift briefings or in-service training.
  • Remind staff that their physical and emotional health are part of their “fitness for duty” and that you are there to support them.
  • Educate staff that when they take care of themselves and seek support in order to be fully functioning, they are enhancing their capacity to help others and withstand the trauma they witness or experience.