Blog: Mental health and wellbeing of community service workers during natural disasters

The flood events this year had a significant and far-reaching impact on many Queenslanders. The traumatic experience of the events and the loss of belongings, property, sense of security or loved ones meant that many people reached out to community organisations for support. Even organisations who do not work directly in disaster recovery were providing support to clients who were impacted.

Natural disasters can have a heavy toll on the mental health of individuals, often inducing grief, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Organisations reported that when supporting clients affected by the floods, their team members were regularly exposed to emotional and traumatic material. This exposure has the potential to impact the mental health and wellbeing of community service workers.

Community organisations undertake invaluable work to support their communities during natural disasters, so it is important for community workers to prioritise their own wellbeing, which in turn will help them support their clients effectively.

It’s important to remember that Queensland’s latest natural disasters have also occurred during a once-in-a-century pandemic, which was and is impacting the resilience of individuals and organisations. It’s the compounding affect of these challenges which may make these events and their implications more challenging.

Tips on prioritising wellbeing

  • Focus on the things that are within your control.
  • Understand what triggers your stress and what makes it better. It can also be helpful to reflect on your specific experiences with stress, either alone, or with a close friend or colleague.
  • Self-care is necessary for your effectiveness and success in honouring your professional and personal commitments. Self-care refers to activities that we can engage in and build into our routines to interrupt patterns of stress and enhance our health and wellbeing.
  • Physical health and overall wellbeing are closely linked. The habits that maintain our physical health such as sleep, exercise, eating well, and relaxation are crucial to our ability to function in the world and support others.
  • Recognising and normalising our emotions is a vital part of looking after ourselves. Identifying our feelings, safely experiencing them and remembering our strengths and ability to cope is important.
  • Maintain healthy and supportive relationships. Accessing our social networks and talking about our experiences with family, friends, or a professional can be helpful.
  • Getting a sense of perspective beyond the day to day of life can be helpful. For some, this may be about their religious beliefs, and for others it could involve meditation or spending time in nature.

Vicarious trauma and burnout

Stress is a normal part of life, however when the stress we are experiencing becomes prolonged or greater than our ability to cope with, it can have consequences on our mind and body.

While many community service workers working with clients during disasters may experience mild stress reactions which resolve with self-care and social support, some workers may be at risk of experiencing chronic stress which could lead to vicarious trauma or burnout.

Vicarious trauma is also sometimes known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, and is the process by which those that support or observe the distress and suffering of others begin to suffer similar symptoms.

Burnout is often caused by long-term stress, and is a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. People experiencing burnout may find it difficult to engage in activities they normally find meaningful, or may experience an increasing sense of hopelessness.

It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma and burnout, and to seek support if you think you might be experiencing them.

Accessing support

Wellbeing is a shared responsibility for all people, at all levels, in the workplace. While individuals have a responsibility to look after their own mental health, organisations also have a responsibility to prevent risks to mental health and support people who are struggling.

Some organisations offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which is a work-based intervention program designed to enhance the emotional, mental and general psychological wellbeing of all employees. EAP’s provide a certain number of free, professional and confidential counselling services, and can be used for developing new strategies for handling life’s inevitable stress, or working through life’s many events, challenges or changes.

It is worth checking if your organisation has an Employee Assistance Program, or if there are other strategies in place at your organisation that support the mental health of employees.

It can also be helpful to seek additional help from your GP if you are concerned about your mental health and wellbeing, as your GP can assist and refer you to services and professionals that can help.

Additional resources

For information on building trauma-informed organisations visit the Phoenix Australia website. Embedding trauma-informed care principles throughout an organisation can help organisations respond effectively when individual service users and communities are impacted by major events such as disasters.

Red Cross have a Recovery Basics resource which provides further information on looking after yourself during and after disasters, including signs and symptoms of stress, vicarious trauma, and burnout.

For information on burnout and how to regain balance in your life, as well as links to support services, see this Queensland Government’s Darling Downs Health article.