Witnessing traumatic events at work can have devastating and long-lasting effects on employees. Roles where people may experience vicarious trauma include, but are not limited to:
- law enforcement
- emergency services
- family services.
It is important that appropriate steps are taken to reduce the impact that vicarious trauma can have on employees. This was demonstrated in the case of The Age Company Limited v YZ (a Pseudonym)  VSCA 313.
In this case, a reporter developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of exposure to traumatic events during the course of her work.
YZ was a reporter employed by The Age Company Limited. From 2003 to 2009, she was a crime reporter. The plaintiff was transferred to sports journalism after alleging that she was unable to continue crime reporting due to the distress it was causing her. However, approximately a year later, in 2010, the plaintiff was repeatedly asked to take over a court reporting position. Despite initially declining, the plaintiff eventually accepted the position.
In March 2016, the plaintiff commenced proceedings against the defendant in negligence, alleging she suffered PTSD caused by the trauma suffered by her while crime reporting. She alleged that the defendant had breached its duty of care by failing to put measures in place to identify and avoid psychological injury to her.
Reasonable care against risk of psychiatric injury
The Court at first instance held that the nature and extent of the plaintiff’s exposure to traumatic events was substantial, noting several instances of the plaintiff’s exposure to trauma, and accepting that she ‘attended the scenes of, investigated and wrote about more than thirty murders’.
The Court stated that the risk of psychiatric injury to the plaintiff was foreseeable to the defendant and the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to take reasonable care against the risk of foreseeable injury, including reasonable psychiatric injury.
The Court noted a number of things the defendant should have done in order to discharge its duty of care, including rotating or removing the plaintiff, who showed symptoms of distress, from the duties involving contact with traumatic events.
The defendant’s failure to take any of these steps amounted to a breach of its duty of care.
The Age appealed the decision and the appeal was allowed in part. It was held that the trial judge successfully identified the scope and content of the duty of care owed. However, it found that The Age did not breach this duty until after 2010 when the reporter was transferred back to court reporting, as this was when reasonable apprehention of the risks associated with the duty arose. The case was remitted to the trial judge for recalculation of damages.
What this means for employers
Employers cannot guarantee that employees will never be exposed to trauma in the workplace. However, they should take proactive steps to reduce the risks of trauma in the workplace and provide additional support following the occurrence of a traumatic incident or following an employee showing symptoms of distress caused by their work. If the employee is likely to continue to be exposed to work they find distressing, an appropriate medical assessment of the employee should be undertaken to ensure they are capable of completing work safely, and appropriate measures should be put in place to reduce workplace health and safety risks arising from that work.