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How to deal with the trauma of work

How to deal with the trauma of work

By Andrea De Souza

Health Wellbeing Workplace 


In my previous life as a plaintiff medical negligence lawyer, I regularly liaised with clients who had suffered terrible trauma with profound physical and psychiatric effects. My firm even had a suicide procedure for clients who reported immediate suicidal tendencies. Inevitably, the constant exposure to my clients’ trauma took an emotional toll on me and I was lucky to have understanding workmates and a supportive network of family and friends. Some of that stress remains in my work in a defendant practice. I am still faced with the same stories: plaintiffs with poor outcomes who have at times suffered horrific injuries. These situations are not unique to personal injury lawyers. Criminal lawyers deal with defendants, victims and their families. These people may have been involved in terrible crimes and may be going through some of the worst circumstances in their lives. A study in 2007 found that criminal solicitors can suffer vicarious trauma due to the horrific material they encounter at work.1 Criminal law barrister Justin Hannebery recalls the difficulties he faced as a young solicitor dealing with defendants and their families. He describes a steep learning curve managing clients and their families from vastly different backgrounds and life experiences. Junior practitioners may find it challenging to put their clients’ experiences into the context of their own lives and world view. Difficult subject matter Mr Hannebery said there was no doubt that the subject matter he dealt with could be challenging, especially concerning violent or sexual crimes. He said that there was little in the way of a formal process when he was a starting out, but that he takes particular care to assist his readers to deal with similar issues. He is not alone in assisting junior practitioners to come to terms with traumatised and traumatising clients. Many firms have formal and informal programs of mentorship or peer support. Dealing with clients and their families Mr Hannebery highlighted how confronting dealing with clients and their families can be, saying that “people use you as an outlet”. He considered that it was important for young lawyers to understand that it was okay to be professional and to maintain boundaries with clients. He noted that it could be dangerous for young lawyers to confuse being a lawyer with being a professional friend and to confuse empathy with being too emotionally invested. Encouragingly, he noted that experience helped and that managing oneself and clients was a learned skill. He noted that it was important to recognise that clients and their families could make irrational choices, and not to be frustrated or too invested in the outcome of a claim. Taking a break As a last resort, if the work is becoming too difficult or imposing itself on your personal life, it may be time to consider a break from a particular type of file or work. An example from my own experience is a lawyer who worked in asbestos who transferred to another department because she needed a break from clients who were usually in the last stages of fatal lung disease. She could continue to apply all the personal injury litigation skills she had gained through long years of practice while lessening her personal stress. It may be that you would be happier in a different speciality. As much as I wouldn’t get the same job satisfaction writing contracts, another lawyer might find dealing with injured clients or traumatised families too gruelling. Mr Hannebery recalls that not everyone could deal with the difficulties of the practice and some practitioners found the experience “too heavy” and “too emotionally draining”. There should be no shame in deciding that a particular area of law is not for you and it is admirable that a young lawyer is able to achieve that level of personal insight. Conclusion These concerns are not unique to lawyers. Support staff can have the same exposure to traumatic stimuli, as can volunteers. A good employer and manager will be proactive and help his or her subordinates manage the stresses of work and assist them to work at their best. Ultimately though, it is up to the individual to manage their own stress levels and make sure they are able to deliver the best outcomes to their clients without suffering any harm themselves. Strategies to manage vicarious trauma Debrief with colleagues The people around you are the your best resource. They have seen it all and will usually have their own tips and tricks to leave the job at the office. Most importantly, you share a common vernacular and knowing that you all labour under the same burdens can provide both strength and relief. Have an external support network After your colleagues, friends and family will be your greatest asset. Even if they don’t have the same level of understanding, they can provide support and encouragement when you need it most. Exercise Studies have repeatedly shown that exercise releases endorphins and creates calm and focus. Had a terrible day at work? Put down the chocolate bar and go for a run. Even a quick walk around the office block can clear your head and give you some breathing space. Have interests outside work Work isn’t everything. This may come as a surprise for many young lawyers but there is much to be gained from outside pursuits. If nothing else, it’s something to take your mind off the difficulties of the work day. At best, it can provide an alternative focus which can remind you of your worth when the day has been particularly trying and deserving clients have suffered setbacks. It reminds us that the world we see at work, of accidents and catastrophes, is not the only world there is. Professional help Many firms have formal programs that provide free support in the form of professional counselling, usually without the employer being informed at all. Some of these programs even extend to career counselling. Getting help before an issue starts to drag you down or affect your work is the sensible, responsible thing to do. The LIV provides a counselling service for lawyers at www. viclawyershealth.com.au. Telephoning 1300 664 744 immediately connects you with a skilled counsellor. ANDREA DE SOUZA is a lawyer in the corporate risk and insurance team at Minter Ellison. She specialises in medical law. 1 J. Lewis, “Risky business; a new study finds criminal solicitors’ work can cause them psychological damage”, 2007, 45, Law Society Journal, 16.

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