Psychologically Healthy Workplaces - Trauma, Compassion Fatigue & Resilience


Canada has a new Psychologically Healthy Workplace Standard, developed by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Standards Association. Organizations like CSC, the RCMP, and Canadian Forces have the same challenges as organizations like Bell Canada or Revenue Canada do in developing healthy workplaces, but they also have additional unique challenges in that their mandates leave employees exposed to intense trauma and unfixable suffering at times.    

A key to being resilient on the job is understanding the threats to your resilience. Having travelled across Canada offering resilience training to CSC employees, I have seen three types of threats to CSC employees: Primary Trauma, Secondary Trauma, and Organizational Stressors. 

Primary trauma is defined as an incident that involves a serious threat to one’s physical safety, as well as fear, helplessness, or horror. Not all use of force incidents, for example, may be traumatic. In my experience as an RCMP officer I have been involved in numerous use of force incidents. A drunk suspect swinging a punch at me or not complying with commands and requiring some measure of force may elicit an adrenalin response, but not an experience of full fear, helplessness or horror. I have had far fewer occasions in policing where I was involved in a use of force where I knew the person was trying to either kill me or do me serious harm. When I was worried I may lose, was being injured, or was in true fear for my life, these incidents were considered traumatic. Professional corrections officers may be routinely required to use appropriate and measured force to successfully resolve threatening or violent situations. Most are managed quickly and successfully through minimal force, skilled application of training, and teamwork. Those situations, however, that trigger the full adrenalin response combined with fear, helplessness, or horror can pose a serious threat to anyone’s resilience throughout the course of a career.


Secondary or vicarious trauma is another serious threat to resilience for CSC employees.  In my experience, it is the bigger threat to all first responders in Canada. It is the experience of confronting unfixable suffering. Whether that be trying to help a fellow employee who has been seriously injured, an inmate who has been badly injured or killed, or simply reading the files of inmates where we are left with stories or images burned deep into our psyche that change how we view people or even the world. Chronic exposure to unfixable suffering can lead to what is known as compassion fatigue. A self-explanatory term where our capacity to care lessens, we can become numb, hyper-vigilant, irritable, mistrusting, and experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression.

Organizational stressors can amplify and complicate the effects of primary and secondary trauma at work. They can be frustrations with management, conflict with a supervisor or colleague, policies that are confusing and frustrating, or being the subject of an internal investigative process. Organizational stressors are not unique to CSC, and in fact are a common concern across all first responder groups. A police officer said to me recently, “The old saying about our bullet proof vests used to be front panel for the street, back panel for the office. Now I just keep both panels in the back. The threats on the street I can deal with, the issues in the office are what exhaust me.” The combination of the challenges associated with corrections work and organizational stressors can feel, understandably, overwhelming at times for some employees.

Despite the threats to employee resilience at CSC, all is not lost! CSC staff are an incredibly resilient bunch given the risks to your psychological health at work. When asked about the positive and engaging aspects of CSC work - factors that help with resilience - I often hear the importance of teamwork and supportive colleagues, a respectful supervisor, the work itself being interesting despite the risks, and the reward of being able to provide an important service to Canada.


The good news about resilience is that it is something everyone can be mindful to develop in themselves. Most people exposed to traumatic events are resilient and fully recover. Our level of personal and professional resilience is something we can always increase and grow. The biggest predictor of resilience is one’s level of social support. Friends, family, and colleagues whom you trust, you can talk to, and have your back. Too often throughout one’s career, friends disappear. Being mindful to cultivate healthy friendships both at work and outside will increase your resilience. 


Exercise is also a big factor in resilience. Not just for the physical benefits, but for the psychological benefits. Exercise helps burn off the adrenalin and cortisol that can leave us anxious, angry, and hyper-vigilant. It helps with sleep, mood, and emotional self-regulation.  Mindfulness-based activities are also increasingly being shown to make positive changes in the brain and body. Where trauma can damage our brain and body, mindfulness can heal it.  Mindfulness is often thought to be activities like yoga or meditation, but it can include any activity that requires us to be fully self-aware and present in the here and now. It may include activities like motorcycling, paddle boarding, pottery, or archery. There is a long tradition in the martial arts, for example, where meditation and focus are equal aspects to the physical training and techniques.

Finally, the value of optimism and finding a healthy perspective cannot be under-estimated.  Optimism is not about denying the realities of life or our work. It is about acknowledging the struggles and difficulties, without losing hope that much good still remains. Maintaining a healthy work / life balance, and being mindful to appreciate the good things in our lives and communities provides us with a perspective that keeps work and the challenges in our lives within a balanced context.


CSC provides an essential and important service. I hope you all take pride in your own work, and find meaning in the important role you play in serving Canada. Appreciating moments of joy and connection with others can remind ourselves of that meaning.       


Please visit the Workplace Mental Health Injuries infonet page for more information about this important topic as well as resources available to you.



Date modified: