Post-Traumatic Stress Injury: Hearing, Helping, Healing

ptsi-blue-sky-black-cloud

Jim Regimbal chaired the Yukon Employees’ Union’s recent Human Rights panel discussions of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.  As Dawson City’s Fire Chief, President of the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs, and Yukon’s Director on the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, he has advocated for improved services to first responders suffering from PTSI and has been instrumental in bringing the issue into focus in Yukon.  He provided powerful empathy and insight earned from his many years on the job. 

The first step is acknowledging and accepting that, whatever name it’s given, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury is real and that trauma significant enough to cause injury can’t easily be quantified. The science supports this, with mountains of evidence explaining the changes to brain structure caused by exposure to trauma. We can’t choose not to “believe in PTSI” any more than we can choose not to believe in climate change. The evidence is clear and the science is irrefutable.

PTSI can be the result of a sudden, dramatic incident but it is just as likely to develop invisibly over many years.  Its onset can come without warning, sometimes after a seemingly benign event.  Whitehorse Psychologist Nicole Bringsli used a water glass analogy; a glass can hold only so much liquid.  All it takes is one too many ordinary, inconsequential drops of water and the glass spills over.  We can witness and contain only so much pain and trauma before we reach our capacity to cope and, like the water glass, we risk spilling over.

What constitutes trauma?  There’s no easy answer. Trauma that affects one individual very profoundly can sometimes be borne by another, or can be overcome with access to the right kind of support at the right time.  Bringsli reminded us that each individual brings their own history and sensibilities to their work, and each person responds differently to similar circumstances.

What occupations or events are likely to lead to psychological injury?  Combat veterans, first responders like firefighters, police officers, EMS providers, dispatchers and corrections officers witness things they can’t ever forget, scenes and calls that will affect them forever.  A career of running into burning buildings, delivering terrible news or fighting to save lives takes an enormous toll on the heart and psyche.  There are many lines of work that put people at risk, and it’s important to recognize the danger so we can provide appropriate resources to all those who need them.

Many caring professions are occupied predominantly by women, and many struggle silently with the emotional impacts of that difficult work. Though rarely labelled PTSI, the ongoing emotional trauma has the same impact on quality of life and mental health. It’s time to consider how broadly affected both men and women are by their work, and how many professions are high risk for psychological injury.

Social workers face heartbreaking situations in the line of duty. Removing children from dangerous homes, denying parental access and leaving vulnerable children in foster situations takes a terrible toll. Sheena Larose, a former Child Protective Services worker from Ontario recently wrote “Unless you are in the trenches, people don’t understand that child protection work can be among the most intensive, heart-wrenching and volatile work one could ever encounter.”

Social workers counsel child abuse victims and must bear witness for their frightened and confused young clients. When we talk about social workers’ emotional health, we often say they have “burned out”… we don’t consider PTSI as a likely outcome.  Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue – whatever we call it, the results can be life altering and career limiting.

Front line workers in shelters for domestic violence victims face recurring trauma – imagine the daily challenge of maintaining a healthy outlook when you’re immersed in the pain of others.  How hard must it be to turn a woman away when your facility has no space, knowing she and her children have no choice but to return to a dangerous home?  These workers must also remain anonymous to protect the security of those they help, and so they often have no choice but to struggle in silence, without recognition or support.

Prevention is more valuable than cure; our panel members spoke again and again of the urgent need for effective critical incident de-briefing practices, currently almost non-existent in Yukon. They talked of the need for trained peer support, for non-judgemental listening and for access to counselling services. Other jurisdictions have comprehensive supports we haven’t even begun to consider here in the Territory. 

When our panel was asked for a wish list to help combat Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, there was consensus on the need for critical incident debriefing, for pro-active discussion and peer support. More funding is needed to ensure local mental health service providers are resourced to provide care when it’s needed. Employers must prioritize worker safety and be as diligent in protecting the minds and spirit of their employees as they are about their physical well-being.    

Jeannie Dendys, Yukon’s new Minister responsible for the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health & Safety Board offered her commitment to supporting PTSI prevention & treatment.  YWCHSB Chair Kurt Dieckmann stressed the role of the employer and the value of prevention.  It’s important to make sure protections are built into work environments likely to experience critical stress and trauma.  Normalizing help-seeking behaviour will go far, he says, to de-stigmatizing PTSI and making work safer.

How we respond to our injured colleagues, neighbours and family members, is an indicator of how likely they are to heal.  Forcing sufferers to convince us of their injury, prove its cause and defend their need for help adds insult to injury and creates barriers sometimes too great to overcome.  During the recent Territorial election campaign, new Premier Sandy Silver promised to amend the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Act to include presumptive provisions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD/PTSI) in first responders. That commitment was echoed by Minister Dendys at our event.  At YEU we believe presumptive provisions must cover first responders, but that other high risk worker groups must also be included if the system is to protect those at greatest risk of harm.

Our community is compassionate; we are quick to help families in need. We support our sick, injured neighbours when there’s a fire, a death or catastrophic illness. That empathy must extend to the helpers, not just to the victims. 

We invite you to watch the full video recording of our two panel discussions.

Watch The Nature of Things for PTSD: Beyond Trauma

 

/dtd

The YG Fact-Finding Meeting; What to Expect

Keep-Calm-call-union-small

It’s another day at work, everything seems to be going well and it’s shaping up to be a good day.  Then it happens; you receive a request to attend a meeting the following day and your supervisor advises that you are entitled to bring a union representative to the meeting!

What has happened? Why won’t they tell me what the meeting is about? What are the specifics? Aside from being frustrated that you can’t have these questions answered, being called to a meeting relatively blind is also incredibly stressful.

You have been called to a fact finding meeting.

Fact finding meetings are a very common and normal occurrence in Yukon Government workplaces.  When a supervisor or manager receives a complaint or incident report involving a staff member, they are required to investigate – this means they need to talk to you and get your version of the incident or event. If you have been asked to such a meeting, you must attend.

The fact finding meeting is based on the premise that there has been a problematic event or incident of some kind. The employer needs to ask questions to determine what happened. You might not be directly involved; you may have witnessed the incident or have information that may help to make the situation clear.

These sessions are not meant to be punitive, but should offer space for an open and honest dialogue on the event being discussed. These conversations can feel incredibly stressful for the employee and may feel like a cross examination, but that is not the intent. Your union representative will be there with you to protect your rights.

Why do I need a union representative?  It is incumbent on the employer to advise an employee of the need for representation if there’s any chance of discipline down the road.  Discipline is not always involved, but the employer cannot deny a member representation then dole out discipline after the fact; this goes against the principles of the Collective Agreement as well as the principles of natural justice.

Why won’t they answer my questions about the event or incident before the meeting?  Well, this is twofold; while they may state “we are going to be discussing event ABC” they cannot discuss the actual event outside the meeting. Firstly the employer would like to see unchecked, honest reactions to the questions posed.  Secondly if the employer engages in this conversation it may be construed as part of the fact finding session when the employee has not yet had an opportunity to secure union representation.

These meetings are usually less than an hour long, depending on the events and issues at hand.  During these sessions the employee, the employer or the union representative can ask for a break to have discussions or sidebar chats.  These meeting should be, and for the most part are, very respectful and smooth.

What can I say? What can’t I say during these sessions?  The intent of these fact findings is to bring the facts to light.  The employee is responsible to be open, honest and accountable. Your union representative is there to protect your rights and ensure proper process is followed, but they are not defense attorneys and will not be using legal gamesmanship to avoid the issues at hand.

This is a meeting about FACTS, not about what you may think of a situation. Avoid deflecting accountability by drawing others’ poor behavior into the conversation.  The employer may ask what others thought or said, but you should avoid commenting on how you believe others may think or feel about the incident or parties involved.

Do I get to have my say in the meeting? Of course – this is not a one sided barrage or cross examination.  During the meeting you will be asked several times if there is anything else you would like to add. This is the time where pertinent items to the event can be offered if they have not been addressed in the questioning.  This however is not the time to deflect accountability, point out others’ poor behavior or inject supposition or rumor into the meeting.  Your additions should be factual, pertinent and meaningful.

It is also likely that the employer will have investigated the issue by chatting with other employees named in the event.  These sessions are confidential and private, and employees are advised not to speak about these meetings outside of the HR/union/supervisory pathways.

How do I get Union representation?  Call 867-667-2331 as soon as you’ve been notified of the meeting, and ask for the intake officer.  They will ask you for the meeting time & location and ask whether have any idea what the meeting may involve.

Once this information is collected, YEU will make a call to the Shop Steward group to see who is available to attend your meeting.  Once the Shop Steward has confirmed their availability, the Steward will contact you to discuss the process and answer your questions prior to the meeting. Some Stewards will contact you well ahead of time while others, depending on time of notification, may make arrangements to speak with you just prior to the meeting.

What can I expect once the meeting is over? Timelines are usually established at the end of the meeting.  Your supervisor or the HR Representative will notify you of the timeline and might advise you that another meeting will be requested if more questions arise during their follow up.  Generally, the post-meeting fact finding time is one to two weeks.

What will happen to me? This depends on the incident and your role in what transpired.  One possible pathway is the performance management stream, another is discipline.  I will cover these topics in an upcoming performance management and discipline article on the blog; keep an eye out and have a read.

Remember, fact finding meetings are a normal part of any workplace and your YEU representatives are there to support you through these meetings.Rob-Jones-Y010-President-2016

In Solidarity,

Rob Jones

President – Local Y010