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How Workplace Investigators Can Prevent Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma

When investigating heavy subjects such as violence or sexual harassment, investigators may suffer from vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Learn more about these disorders, including how to protect your employees from them in this article.

If your organization already has internal staff and systems in place to investigate HR issues, security threats and fraud potential, you may feel you’ve got your bases well covered. But even if you have a team of well-trained, fully-engaged professionals following current best practices, you still haven’t minimized all possible risks surrounding investigations.

A police officer in Victoria, British Columbia, has taken indefinite mental health leave due to primary and secondary trauma from his job duties. “If you name something, I can associate death with it,” he explains in an article from Capital Daily. “Whether it be sunglasses or sunshine or water, there are tendrils that can bring forth connections to those scenes.” While workplace investigators don’t experience death on the job every day, they do often work on cases with heavy subjects such as sexual harassment and violence.

It can be all too easy to categorize compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma as personal (or personnel) problems. And to a certain extent, you’d be right—the negative effects on an employee, his or her coworkers and even the employee’s family can run deep. What’s worse, only 39 per cent of employees feel that their managers adequately prepared them for the psychological demands of their work.

But these issues can also exert profound impact on the organization itself. Lost productivity, absenteeism, job turnover and even psychological injury claims are just some of the potential consequences of ignoring employees’ mental health. One study claims that failing to support mental wellbeing in the workplace costs employers about $38 billion annually.

The good news? There are steps you can take right now to take better care of those who spend so much of their own emotional energy in the workplace caring for others. Let’s take a deeper look at two closely-related mental wellbeing problems faced by case managers and investigators. We’ll begin with some definitions.

As an employer, you should strive to make your workplace as comfortable as possible to protect employees’ mental health.

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What is an Example of Compassion Fatigue?

At its essence, compassion fatigue is the psychological cost of helping others. When interviewing or investigating subjects who are experiencing extreme stress or trauma, it’s easy to take on their suffering.

“It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go, and invades your thoughts,” explains Charles R. Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University.

Unsurprisingly, this mental state can affect how an employee thinks, feels and acts, both on and off the job:

  • Emotional: feeling anxious, sad, irritable, angry, numb and/or on edge
  • Mental: jaded view of the world, cynicism and negativity. Loss of purpose
  • Physiological: headaches, stomach pain, exhaustion and other physical symptoms

 

And the behavioral changes are no less concerning:

  • Isolating or detachment from others
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Change in eating habits
  • Struggles with concentration, decision making, and memory
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of empathy

 

Investigators handling larger caseloads might also experience compassion fatigue based on the sheer volume of issues they deal with each day.

What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary traumatic stress, is how we describe the stress resulting from exposure to a traumatized individual, rather than to the trauma itself. This phenomenon is common among therapists, as well as those whose job duties include investigations of workplace abuse, violence and other wrongdoing.

As with compassion fatigue, this can lead to severe burnout. “I sometimes refer to this component as ‘empathy overload,’” says Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, of Coastal Carolina University. Schwanz adds that symptoms can include anxiety, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, numbness or feelings of having nothing left to give.

Common symptoms of secondary traumatic stress (STS) include:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Reckless behavior
  • Less enjoyment of work
  • Irritability
  • Change in personal beliefs about self and the world
  • Unwanted memories, dreams and flashbacks from one or more incidents

How Widespread Are These Problems?

Even the most compassionate, well-intentioned leaders are likely to underestimate just how prevalent trauma and fatigue are in the modern work environment—even now, when the dominant paradigm has shifted to remote or hybrid work for those roles that don’t require direct, face-to-face contact.

Ken McCarthy is an acknowledged expert on this topic. His company, Integrity by McCarthy, oversees and conducts workplace and sports investigations. He also understands this unique form of trauma based on personal experience. After interviewing the subject of an investigation who died just two weeks later, Ken found himself exhibiting many of the symptoms outlined above.

“I went from doing interviews and writing reports to ‘can’t do anything,’” he explains. After completing a routine investigation interview, he felt “exhausted” and “took a three-hour nap,” despite not feeling overly tired beforehand. Beyond the pattern of exhaustion after working, the normally positive McCarthy also began to feel cynical and apathetic.

McCarthy’s journey back to health wasn’t easy. But recovery provided a newfound focus within his work. He now speaks publicly about his experience, consulting with organizations throughout Canada and beyond to promote investigator mental health.

In a recent i-Sight webinar, McCarthy asked the 1,000+ attendees whether they’d ever experienced the types of empathy-induced issues he was describing. The results to this poll question were startling, even to us. Fifty-three per cent answered “yes, definitely,” and another 33 per cent responded with “possibly.” Let that sink in—a full 88 per cent of this investigator-packed audience confirmed they may have been personally affected by exposure to the stress and trauma of others.

So, what can you do right now to create a culture that takes a more proactive, preventative stance on compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma?

There is no doubt that the case management process can be stressful and sometimes triggering for those who are managing it.

Listen to Ken McCarthy's full story and learn more prevention tips here.

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How to Assess Risk Within Your Organization

The best way to begin is by stepping back to evaluate your workplace dynamics through the lens of mental wellbeing. Approach these critical questions with clear-eyed objectivity:

  • What specific risks does your organization face?
  • Are there adequate policies and procedures in place around these issues?
  • Do you have enough redundancy to allow each investigator time for self-care?

 

After this simple exercise, get other members of your leadership team involved in the conversation. You may even decide to bring in an outside resource with specialized expertise in employee mental health. Remember, there is no such thing as zero risk.

How to Stop Issues Before They Start

Promoting cultural change within any organization can often feel like swimming upstream. Fortunately, you’re not likely to encounter a lot of disagreement on the importance of minimizing employee burnout. The issue most often comes down to awareness and education. It’s rare that you’ll encounter any C-suite counterpart who’s actively against the idea of a more supportive (and ultimately more sustainable) work environment.

According to McCarthy, a few specific areas typically hold the most potential:

  • Responsible case management: don’t let any investigator’s caseload become unrealistically heavy. Make sure the most psychologically taxing cases (e.g. sexual harassment or violence) don’t all fall to any one person. Stress can be easier to manage if it’s shared among a team.
  • Mental health support: if employees don’t already have access to internal/external support groups, make it happen. Therapy sessions should be covered by insurance. PTO (yes, actual mental health days) should be an accepted part of the job, and approved without drama or delay.
  • Open culture: encourage employees to speak with their managers early and often if they feel stressors getting under their skin. Normalize talking candidly about stress, burnout and mental hygiene. The last thing you want is someone trying to hide a problem until it becomes too big to deal with.

 

“If I could go back in time and fix a few of these things,” McCarthy says about the above list, “I probably wouldn’t be sharing this story.”

 Why Less Burnout Is Good for Your Bottom Line

Even a modest effort to safeguard the happiness and wellbeing of investigators can produce dramatic results in the lives of individual team members. But don’t lose sight of the fact that good emotional health is also good for business. One study found that lost productivity due to mental illness costs employers 4.7 billion dollars per year.

Increasing support for employees’ mental wellbeing provides a powerful means for reducing the impact of absenteeism, poor productivity and employee turnover. And when investigators are at their best—when everything’s clicking—their positive impact cannot be overstated. Security threats, theft and bad behavior in general tend to become much less common in organizations that intentionally choose to create strong, resilient investigative teams.

There’s no reason yours can’t be next.


 

How i-Sight Can Help

i-Sight’s advanced case management software can make any investigator’s job less stressful. Our flexible, configurable solution is designed to integrate smoothly with existing reporting systems, including third-party hotlines. This ensures that no incident slips through the cracks.

We also analyze past case data to guide you on specific preventive steps you can take to reduce the potential for future issues. By proactively supporting every employee’s mental wellbeing, you’ll help reduce risks to your fellow workers, your organization and your brand reputation.

And that’s something everyone can feel good about.

Learn more about how i-Sight can improve the quality of your organization’s investigations and reduce resolution time here.

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