Studies Suggest Strategies Could Have An Impact On Secondary Traumatic Stress

F.J. Thomas

Lexington, KY ( The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently awarded a $3 million grant to researchers at the University of Kentucky to study secondary traumatic stress (STS) in healthcare workers. The money will be used to create a national Secondary Traumatic Stress Innovations and Solutions Center (STS-ISC) which will develop and test interventional therapies for workers with STS.

STS is the indirect exposure to a traumatic event via listening to a first-hand account or through a narrative. Its symptoms are extremely similar to PTSD, and commonly occur in therapists, welfare workers, case managers, healthcare workers and other professionals that listen to the traumatic experiences of others. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) symptoms include chronic exhaustion, sleeplessness, fear, and anger in addition to the traditional depression and anxiety.

A recent German study of workers at Hannover Medical School from 2016 to 2018 revealed a high level of STS among nurses in all fields of medicine. Over 90 percent of the nurses surveyed indicated that they had undergone secondary traumatic experiences, while 25.3 percent actually developed STS and showed more substantial symptoms of depression and anxiety, increased job strain, and decreased work ability. One of the points made in the study was that psychological risk assessments have been part of the occupational requirements in Germany since 2013; however, data from those assessments are scarce and there is actually very little guidance on how those should be carried out. Researchers felt the data could potentially be used to identify those workers and groups most at risk and help develop strategies to avoid STS in the workplace.

By contrast, a recent Chinese study from the Huazhong University in Wuhan of 1,734 healthcare workers indicated much lower levels of STS — even in the midst of COVID-19. Additionally, the results suggested that the level of STS could have a potential impact on hand hygiene, as better hand hygiene was reported among those with lower levels of STS.

In this particular study the nurses had 4 hour shifts, and physicians had 6 hour shifts which is substantially less than what is common in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Nurses were also given no more than two patients at a time to care for, and their days off were based on the severity of the patients in their care. Healthcare workers were also offered telephonic psychological support if needed.

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