Why is it essential for us to connect with and understand the vicarious impacts of helping work?

8 Mar 2023

Finger paints and worker wellbeing?! There is now so much more recognition of vicarious trauma, moral injury, empathic strain, burnout and other vicarious risks of helping work. But many do not know that there are also protective factors that help to mitigate these risks, and bring us strength, hope, inspiration and joy. Understanding of these concepts and connection to our felt experience is crucial for a healthy and sustainable career.

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Ahhh finger painting.

Remember the jars of paint?

The paper laid out, ready to receive smears and globs of colour?

Remember the ill-fitting art smocks?

And, perhaps mostly, the anticipation of what was to come?

Then there was either:

  • the joy and exhiliration of slowly and studiously pushing the paint around with your bare hands;
  • or the freedom of the fast and furious splodge.

Either way you came away with paint at least all over your hands, and possibly your face, arms and clothes.

Sometimes it was easy to clean off.

At other times, your hands were stained for days.

And occasionally, even when you thought there couldn't possibly be any more paint, you would find a hidden smudge of dried-up colour in your elbow, or on the inside of your sleeve.

Bernard Hermant

Work as a health professional or educator can be similar:

  • the preparation and anticipation of what is to come
  • connecting with the experience
  • the ensuing impact of the work: the imprint of inspiration, connection and fun; the residue of stuckness, pain or feeling hopeless
  • it can be messy and it can be joyous

We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.

Bessel van der Kolk

Working with people leaves its imprint on us as helpers.

We already know this.

Furthermore, we can swiftly list all the things that we need to do, in order to pre-empt or take care of ourselves in relation to the work - after all, this is our bread and butter!

It does not, however, mean that we can put it into practice.

Especially when we are stressed, exhausted, overworked, unsupported, trying to prove ourselves or be accepted into a specialist program.

Helping professionals struggle to put themselves first.

How do I know this?

  1. The multitudes of articles and research papers telling us about increased risk of suicide in health professionals, unprecedented rates of burnout and workforce shortages.
  2. In late 2021 and early 2022, I completed a series of interviews with a number of health and education professionals to find out what stops them from seeking support. You can see more in the infographic here, but the four main blocks were:
  • not having enough time
  • difficulty reaching out for support
  • insufficient management / leadership support
  • general overwhelm and exhaustion

We know what to do (our thinking brain has all the answers!), but often we just can't do the thing, particularly when we are chronically stressed (and our nervous systems are stuck in fight, flight, freeze or shut down).

However, in order for us to our jobs well, it is essential for us to be able to be able to hold true to ourselves, and connect with the experience of another.

How can we do this?

Holding true to ourselves asks us to be able to sit with what is present: to pause, to notice, and to support ourselves when we are tired, in pain or exhausted; and to connect in when we are inspired, delighted or feeling strong.

It requires stepping out of autopilot, and to build awareness of, and connect in with all parts of ourselves and our experience:

  • How do you find ways to connect to yourself?
  • How do you know what's happening in your nervous system?
  • Do you have people to whom you can turn at home and at work?
  • Do you have different ways that you can connect with the parts of yourself that are connected to or are aware of feelings / thoughts / sensations / a need for community or something bigger?

Why is this important?

At a basic level, it is because we matter and the quality of our lives matter, too. Health and mental health professionals are often oriented toward prioritizing the well-being of their clients or patients over themselves. They may feel guilty if they give priority to themselves and their own needs. It is sobering, however, to examine what the alternative might be.

Related Resources

Header image: Bernard Hermant