Managing vicarious trauma and moral injury in government service

Vicarious trauma and moral injury have been common experiences across the government sector for decades.

Beneath the veneer of duty and responsibility of government service lies a reality that often goes unacknowledged: Being human is messy and serving humanity is messier. Government employees and executives, across various agencies and roles, witness and respond to situations that most civilians might never encounter. Whether it’s listening to harrowing stories from the people they’re charged with serving, or witnessing distressing scenes of disaster, or the relentless exposure to societal injustices, the nature of serving others means they bear witness to humanity’s struggles firsthand. The ongoing exposure to the suffering of others can lead to vicarious trauma — where individuals take on the physical and emotional impacts of other people’s trauma. In addition, the bureaucracy and ethical compromises often required in government service can lead to moral injury, a unique form of emotional strain, moral conflict or distress caused by conflicting values and compromised integrity. All of this takes its toll on the people doing the work — not just on their mental health and well-being, but on their physical, emotional, spiritual and relational health and well-being, too.

Some might argue that people working in government service have always operated in stress-, crisis-, and trauma-mode and have done fine. I’d propose that they really weren’t fine. While they may have survived every bad thing that’s happened until now, most people in this line of work are perpetually operating in survival mode, often without realizing it. Childhood traumas and other pivotal moments that shaped their worldview created their go-to survival responses, and they aren’t something to simply outgrow over time. This is further exacerbated because we operate in cultures that dismiss empathy, compassion and connection in favor of productivity and perfectionism. This not only results in sending the message that technical skills are valued above relational skills, but it also creates the foundation upon which toxic workplace cultures are built.

Operating in survival mode isn’t sustainable over the course of a career. Trying to compartmentalize stress, crisis and trauma doesn’t work, and insisting these factors don’t impact the way people show up at work simply isn’t true, especially as workforce demographics begin changing and a new generation of employees enters the workforce. But addressing these issues isn’t as simple as offering a training program or extra time off. Shifting organizational culture requires organizations to play the long game and invest time and resources into creating a more holistic, human-centered duty of care for staff that prioritizes social connection, fosters empathy, and promotes trust and psychological safety across the organization.

Many leaders struggle with how to connect with and support others when they themselves are overworked, overwhelmed and dealing with their own trauma. In those moments, the thought of taking on another person’s fear, sadness, grief or trauma can feel overwhelming and often results in leaders simply ignoring the issue. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and share their feelings. It doesn’t require us to do anything extraordinary, fix anything, or say something in particular. As humans, our brains are wired to mimic both the emotions and behaviors of the people around us through mirror neurons in our brains. These mirror neurons are what give us the capacity to experience and express empathy — one of the linchpins of cultures built on connection and trust, and at the heart of human-centered leadership. Through empathy, we’re meeting the person where they are in a given moment, and connecting to what they might be thinking, feeling, or experiencing.

Psychological safety promotes trust by creating an environment of rewarded vulnerability where people can remove the masks of fear and perfectionism and show up as their whole selves. Psychologically safe environments empower staff to take interpersonal risks and make mistakes — the opposite of cultures that have normalized perfectionism and blame. Empathy denotes understanding. Understanding leads to trust. And trust promotes teamwork and collaboration, as well as providing a sense of safety where people can let down their guard and connect more deeply with those around them — an empathic cascade. The bonds established through these little, everyday moments of empathy and connection in the workplace ensure that people will come together and support each other when their organization faces hardship and crisis situations.

Vicarious trauma and moral injury have been common experiences across the government sector for decades. However, in a post-pandemic world with changing demographics, ignoring them is no longer an option. Organizations that want to retain staff, build institutional knowledge, and see sustained success in the future must create trauma-informed cultures and provide a holistic, human-centered duty of care that acknowledges the whole human beings who show up to serve every day. Organizations that fail to address occupational traumas and adapt to the health and well-being needs of their staff will never effectively meet their mission.

Dimple D. Dhabalia founded Roots in the Clouds, a consulting firm specializing in using the power of story to heal individual and organizational trauma and moral injury. She is also a writer, podcaster, coach, and facilitator who brings over twenty years of public service experience working at the intersection of leadership, mindful awareness, and storytelling.

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