their philosophy about life.
My study was based on the
responses of six frontline staff
working in the third sector, four
male, and all of whom worked for the
same charity providing services to
clients affected by substance misuse.
All six were given a semi-structured
interview, then later asked to rate
their responses to certain factors on
a numerical scale. This was limited to
symptoms they had experienced over
the previous seven days.
The interviews centred around
three main themes – the positive
and negative impact of working with
people who use substances, coping
strategies employed, and their
beliefs about positive and negative
impacts. One participant described
having ‘flushes or sweats’ and being
‘unable to think straight’ at work, while another described coming ‘close
to burnout’. One of the other participants said experiencing trauma drove
him to ‘do things better next time around’.
When it came to social relationships one participant admitted the
trauma he suffered had destroyed his marriage: ‘I’ve left my wife. I couldn’t
work here and be in that relationship anymore. I had to decide about my life,
and I did. I’ve moved out, got a place on my own,’ he told the interviewers.
Another participant said working with a troubled client had made her value
her relationship at home more.
Staff can be
exposed to vivid
trauma, as well
as accounts of
neglect and abuse.
The result is
recognised as STS.
A range of personal approaches were mentioned by participants as a way
of coping with the negative impact of their work. One participant went
mountain biking in pursuit of an adrenalin rush, another dealt with the
stress by speaking to sympathetic colleagues and a third asked their boss
to be taken off frontline duties. Some had arranged counselling outside of
their work context and participants appeared to be actively responsible for
seeking a personal approach that worked for them.
In addition to personal approaches, some participants stated that
work-based support was helpful, such as talking to other colleagues or
supervisors. Others, though, felt that it wasn’t at all. Modification of work-
based practices was also emphasised, ranging from absence from work due
to sickness to planned or unplanned changes to their job role.
My study found that the working environment can exacerbate
symptoms of STS – a high caseload and the demands of the job itself were
also culprits. Regular reviewing of caseloads can help to combat this by to
ensuring a balance between trauma and non-trauma-related clients.
The implications for staff and future policy makers are clear in
recognising that STS can negatively affect wellbeing. The findings can help to
assist with the development or refinement of specific organisational policies
for staff to effectively carry out their duties and without compromising
levels of care for those they work with. That’s because it’s clear STS can also
affect client and organisation-level outcomes.
The extent of STS among half of the sample in the UK study was
categorically ‘high or ‘severe’. This reinforces the view that practitioners
working in a substance misuse service require attention, especially by
senior staff members, in the interest of managing and promoting a healthy
workforce and environment.
Victoria Hancock is a researcher at Birmingham City University’s
Department of Psychology
The full research paper, An exploratory study on secondary traumatic stress
amongst substance misuse professionals, can be accessed by emailing Victoria.
They said what..?
Spotlight on the national media
THE RECENT SUGGESTION that we
turn lockdown into ‘dry COVID’
is pompous at best, ambulance-
chasing at worst. There’s a time
and place to judge other people’s
behaviour – now is not it… Alcohol
dependence and using alcohol to
cope are different beasts. Having
a drink to unwind at the end of
the day – particularly given the
circumstances – doesn’t make
you an alcoholic. Shaming and
stigmatising those who enjoy an
occasional drink is likely to lead to
more irresponsible drinking.
What we’re faced with right
now is scary – and we need a way
to collectively cope. So let’s have
a drink – hell, let’s have two. A
pandemic is not the moment to
get on our high horses about one
of the few things that make it
Chris Owen, Independent,
NOW THAT WE ARE A MONTH
INTO LOCKDOWN, it’s becoming
clearer how some of us are
getting through this pandemic.
Some interesting differences
are emerging, particularly in
our use of alcohol to cope. Two
distinct groups have formed:
those who are moderating their
intake of alcohol, and those
who are drinking significantly
more… It’s an uncomfortable
truth that our favourite drug is
the underlying cause of misery,
violence and lives cut short. Yet
our government remains silent
on this issue, no doubt viewing
alcohol consumption as a matter
of choice and liberty, an ideology
that an increasing number of
children, partners and individuals
will be paying a heavy price for.
Ian Hamilton, Independent,
I HAVEN’T HAD A DROP OF
ALCOHOL IN FOUR WEEKS. While
that statement may earn me the
world’s tiniest violin, bear with
me: it wasn’t intentional and I’m
‘There’s a time and
place to judge other
– now is not it…
and using alcohol to
cope are different
… I’m not remotely suggesting
that people do ‘dry COVID’ – the
deeply unpopular suggestion that
people use lockdown as a time
to be sober. Lockdown is such a
mentally stressful time and people
need to manage it in a way that
is right for them as opposed to
needing to reinvent themselves.
But I do feel a lot more informed
about how and why I drink by
intuitively listening to whether or
not I want to drink, and examining
how I feel about it emotionally.
Something tells me it will make
me a much more mindful drinker
and hopefully more impervious
to peer pressure when normal life
resumes once more.
Poorna Bell, inews, 14 April
THE GOVERNMENT HAS SHOWN
NO CONCERN for the acute
distress caused by the fact that
the greatest number of prisoners
ever are guarded by the fewest
staff ever. It has been indifferent
to the record number of assaults,
self-harm, ambulance call-outs,
suicides and other deaths in
custody… Why must it take
COVID-19 for the government
to stop pursuing its relentless,
uncaring, punitive policies and do
the right thing? We won’t forget.
Mark Johnson, Guardian,
MAY 2020 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • 15