A former probation officer and forensic psychologist, Jill Ann Anderson has experienced her share of workplace trauma. At first she thought that the stress she was experiencing from bearing witness to her clients’ traumatic stories was just part of her job, but when strain started to seep into her personal life, she knew something had to change.
“I always had a passion for psychology and criminal justice,” Anderson said. “I loved my work, I loved helping others, but after a few years, it took a toll.”
For Anderson, the toll manifested itself in feeling overwhelmed, fearful, cynical and guilty. Going to work started to feel like a chore, and the naturally compassionate Anderson found herself beginning to feel hardened to her clients’ cases.
Concerned about how she’d been feeling, Anderson researched the effects of trauma exposure on helping professionals, people who work in jobs that nurture the growth of or address the problems of a person’s physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional or spiritual well-being. (Helping professions include social work, psychotherapy, education, ministry, law enforcement, nursing and medicine.)
Anderson quickly realized that the symptoms she was experiencing fit the description of secondary trauma exposure. It was an “ah-ha” moment.
“I’d experienced a lot of trauma exposure in my job,” Anderson said. “I didn’t realize how tremendously that was affecting me as a person. But once I did the research, it was clear. And I saw it in my colleagues, too. The sad part is I didn’t get much education on the effects of trauma exposure in school.”
Helping the helpers
Once she understood the symptoms in herself, Anderson began to notice that the strain of untreated trauma exposure was causing other committed helping professionals to turn to other careers.
“People working in helping professions are starting to see the impact of trauma on their career choices,” Anderson said. “The sad part is, depending on that trauma, a lot of those people opt out of their career — careers they love — because of the trauma that they get exposed to. And there isn’t any established way of helping them deal with that.”
Anderson decided she wanted to help the helpers, so she founded Jill Ann Anderson and Associates, a personal and professional development company that focuses on helping guide organizations and individuals harness their strength, passion and purpose.
“I develop tools to help people to live to their full potential,” Anderson said. “I want to show people how they can be more, do more, have more and give more.”
If a worker wants to do more, have more and give more, they have to take care of themselves, Anderson believes. With that in mind, she developed “Trauma Exposure Training: Help for the Helping Professional,” an all-day training designed to support people in helping professions understand the personal impact of secondary trauma and to develop ways to lessen its toll on their lives. The event, which offers continuing education credits, will be held Aug. 19 at Midland Hills Country Club in Roseville. The event will be co-hosted by Patty Schachtner, the chief medical examiner for St. Croix County, Wisconsin.
“One of the biggest challenges that we face in the helping professions is taking time to take care of ourselves,” Anderson said. “That is a serious issue. Physicians, for example, are at high risk for suicide and addiction because of trauma exposure in their careers.”
Anderson’s training will address this issue and others, and outline basic training and treatment for trauma exposure. Speakers will include Jessica Peterson (formerly Jessica Schaffhausen), a social worker and domestic abuse survivor whose three daughters, Amara, Sophie, and Cecilia, were murdered by their father in July 2012.
“Jessica is going to talk about survival,” Anderson said. “Though her story is one of terrible tragedy, it is also one of amazing resilience.”
Trauma’s ripple effect
Law enforcement officers who worked on Peterson’s case felt the impact of secondary trauma, Anderson said. Their involvement affected their work and their personal lives. Her story sent ripples into the community that are still being felt today.
“Jessica tells a fantastic story about how from the moment she made the 911 call, the number of helping professionals that were affected by her tragedy began to grow,” Anderson said. “Her case sparked a transformation not only in her community but also in her relationships. She explains that we are all so connected: When a trauma happens, even if it doesn’t directly impact us, it impacts all of society.”
Anderson said that her training will not focus on tragedy, but rather on ways to build resilience and health in the face of trauma. There is a well-known tradition among workers in helping professions called the “horror-story happy hour,” she explains, a time when they get together to share, “all the gory details of the horror stories that we heard during the day.” While some might see the horror-story happy hour as a way of getting rid of their trauma, Anderson sees it a different way.
“By continuously sharing these stories,” she said, “we are creating an addiction for ourselves and then we expose also our coworkers to the trauma we experienced. When we do that, we end up expanding the trauma.”
Instead, Anderson said that her training is designed to help participants reframe their stories of trauma into stories of strength and resilience. “That is where Jessica comes in,” she said.
“Trauma Exposure Training: Help for the Helping Professional,” is open to any person whose job requires them to care for others. So far 50 participants have signed up, Anderson said, including “funeral directors, foster parents, teachers, law enforcement, doctors and pastors.”
One person who will be attending is a high school teacher who has experienced repeated cases of secondary trauma at work.
“She told me,” Anderson said, “ ‘We had three students die in one year. We did a fantastic job taking care of the students, but after we took care of the students, life just went on. The teachers that worked with these students didn’t get the help they needed.’ I’m hoping that this training will be a good first step in helping people like her get the help they need.”
Same-day tickets for the training are $149, but a discounted early-bird rate of $99 is available until Aug. 19. Participants can register online.