Key workers’ psychological health

May 28, 2020

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, warning of related secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma (STS) is the term for when an individual has been exposed to difficult or disturbing images or events, either directly or indirectly. Social care workers, particularly those who have been working with people who have coronavirus, are at risk of developing STS.

Whilst occupational secondary trauma is not a new concept - journalists, police officers and crime scene investigators are the professionals most likely to suffer from symptoms of secondary trauma - safeguarding of key workers during and after this pandemic is essential, says IOSH.

The organisation's 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.'

Healthcare experts, Argyroula E.Kalaitzaki, AlexandraTamiolaki and Michael Rovithis have emphasised the need for tailored interventions, specifically for health professionals.

Their latest research, The healthcare professionals amidst COVID-19 pandemic: A perspective of resilience and post-traumatic growth highlights the cost of compassion fatigue, stating, '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.'

As this trauma often occurs indirectly, recognising the symptoms of secondary trauma can be difficult and they often go unrecognised for long periods of time.

The symptoms of secondary trauma can be broken into three sections, says IOSH:

  • Physical warning signs.
  • Behavioural signs
  • 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.

Access IOSH’s free resources on managing mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19 on the organisation's website.


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