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What to Do When It's More Than Burnout | Dealing with Work-Related Trauma

A person holding up a sign with a frowny face, in front of their face.

Burnout. It’s something we’re all familiar with and there’s no shortage of advice on how to prevent it and how to recover.

But what happens when it’s more than burnout?

People working in the social-impact sphere may encounter more trauma than the average worker—it’s the nature of the work. But what’s concerning is how few people feel they receive the necessary support to cope.

As a social-impact professional, it can be critical to find an organization that promotes wellness and mental health, and there are plenty of ways that organizations and individuals can help mitigate the effects of trauma exposure.

A supportive work environment

Self-care is important, but many individuals in the nonprofit and social-impact space also rely heavily on their organizations and colleagues for support.

A study of domestic violence advocates published in Violence Against Women found that a number of factors affected advocates’ incidence of secondary traumatic stress (STS). The most significant factor was empowerment; the study found that regardless of individual history, advocates were less likely to experience STS if they had a high degree of shared power in the workplace.

What does that mean, practically speaking?

New Tactics—an organization that “helps activists become more effective through strategic thinking and tactical planning”—offers the following suggestions for creating a supportive work environment:

  • Build trust and confidence within the organization
  • Focus on prevention
  • Organize group meetings
  • Create a vision; don’t focus on listing problems
  • Create a ripple effect by training trainers
  • Hold the organization accountable for staff self-care

Watch each other’s backs

Even in the most supportive environment, individuals can experience trauma. Knowing how to recognize the symptoms is the first step toward getting help.

Jennifer Sweeton, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in PTSD, writes in Psychology Today that there are eight common signs of PTSD you should watch for in yourself and those around you.

  • Sleep difficulties. Problems may include falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing frequent nightmares.
  • Anger. The person may feel irritable, and may experience frequent anger outbursts that are difficult to control.
  • Numbness and disconnection. Trauma victims may feel disconnected from others. They may also feel numb and have difficulty accessing the loving feelings they know they have for loved ones.
  • Depression. Depressed mood, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities are common.
  • Chronic anxiety. Individuals often report feeling on guard and hyper-vigilant, and they have difficulty relaxing and “unwinding.”
  • Reliving the trauma. Highly distressing thoughts and memories of the event may repeat in the mind, despite an individual’s attempts to avoid or stop them.
  • Feeling unsafe. The person may experience intense feelings of fear or impending doom even when no danger is present. They may also feel as though it is impossible to ever feel safe again.
  • Thoughts of suicide.

If you or a colleague experience any of these symptoms, speak up. The idea that trauma is simply “burnout” and part of the package for people working in social impact fields is both false and dangerous. The effects of trauma are serious and deserve attention and treatment.

Getting help

There’s no one-size-fits all treatment for PTSD, but the American Psychiatric Association’s page on the disorder offers a wealth of information about treatment options—including assistance for those who want to seek out a psychologist.

Many employers offer a wellness program with mental health benefits. Your human resources department should be able to provide you with details.

And finally, if you—or someone you work with—are experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek immediate help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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by Alice Pettway