Most justice system administrators traumatized on the job, union says

The union that represents clerical staff in the federal justice system says more than three-quarters of its members have struggled with second-hand trauma as a result of their work.

Exposure to disturbing documents, testimony causing 'psychological injury,' survey show

The union that represents federal justice and public safety staff at agencies including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service says clerical workers struggle regularly with second-hand trauma. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The union that represents clerical staff in the federal justice system says more than three-quarters of its members have struggled with second-hand trauma as a result of their work.

The Union of Solicitor General Employees conducted a year-long survey of its membership — which includes staff in federal agencies and departments such as the RCMP, CSIS and Correctional Service Canada — and found 79 per cent of respondents reported psychological trauma from being exposed to disturbing material while on the job.

If you're exposed to long-term chronic trauma — indirect trauma — it causes the same and similar psychological injuries that you see with first responders.- Stan Stapleton, Union of Solicitor General Employees

"Second-hand trauma would include things like if you're a clerical staff that works in violent crimes or sex offences or crimes against children, you're exposed every day, all day long to working with files," union president Stan Stapleton told host Hallie Cotnam on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

"And you may have pictures, but you'll also transcribe statements from witnesses, statements from the alleged offenders — and when you do this over and over and over again long term, it creates a psychological injury."

Insomnia, depression, drug abuse

Stapleton said this is common across many sectors of the federal public safety and justice departments. The union represents 15,000 members, many of whom work in administration for court, corrections and police services.

Stan Stapleton is the national president of the Union of Solicitor General Employees. (CBC)
"If you're exposed to long-term chronic trauma — indirect trauma — it causes the same and similar psychological injuries that you see with first responders," he said, adding that the symptoms and their impacts are serious.

"Things like insomnia, marital breakdown, nightmares, depression, alcohol and drug abuse — [the] same things that first responders experience."

Stapleton would like to see more specialized counsellers who are familiar with the kind of second-hand trauma these employees are dealing with. He said he worries they're often ignored, and their struggles aren't taken seriously.

'We need to provide better information'

"There's a stigmatization of, 'Oh how could you possibly be impacted the same way that I am? I was there, I was at the scene, and you're just looking at pictures, and you're just transcribing testimony.' So there's a disconnect there. But again it gets back to the long-term chronic exposure to this material and the impact it has," he said.

As a longtime correctional worker, Stapleton said he experienced direct and indirect trauma on the job throughout his career. It wasn't until he learned of a colleague being stabbed that he realized how serious the indirect trauma could be.

"I wasn't even at work that day, but I suffered symptoms from that, and had to go to the doctor and I didn't know what it was," he said.

Stapleton believes it should be easier for employees to access workers' compensation as a result of second-hand trauma, and he'd like to see more awareness.

"We need to provide better information to the people going into these jobs so they understand how it's going to impact them and their families and everybody," he said.