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Harri Savage

ELK Online

Online Learning Specialist

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How to mitigate trauma when designing training

Dealing with trauma through training can have a detrimental impact on the trainer and team. Here are some ways to mitigate its impact.
Devil character surrounded by fire

Sometimes instructional designers are forced to face challenging and upsetting topics in order to create impactful training. It is essential that we look after our own emotional wellbeing, so here’s some advice gathered from a number of emotive projects.   

Being so embedded in a company that you are a true partner to the subject matter experts can be both a blessing and a curse

Sometimes my job makes me feel sick to my stomach

Sometimes I have to step away from researching the health and safety incident and stop listening to the witness statements, and just get some fresh air.

No one ever mentioned this would be part of being an instructional designer, yet here I am. I was working on a project helping a company enact life-saving behaviour change after a fatality on the workshop floor. I knew from the start that this story wouldn't have a happy ending, but I wasn't prepared for how dreadful I would feel as I read through the investigator’s notes and witness statements from the friends and colleagues that watched the man die.

Being so embedded in a company that you are a true partner to the subject matter experts can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they trust you to interpret their reams of information, manuals and knowledge into an effective solution. On the other hand, they forget that this subject matter isn't your normal day-to-day. You have not been trained in how to deal with the emotional impact of this work, you are not hardened to it and you do not have a support network prepared for it. They do.  

As humans, we naturally empathise with people, their stories, and their experiences. This is what allows us to connect socially with other people and often compels us to help someone else and alleviate their discomfort. We even elicit empathy in our training design by using stories of people who have experienced hardships and how our actions can improve their lives (or could have prevented the hardship in the first place).

But this empathy can also leave us open to feeling the echo of someone else’s pain. 

Vicarious trauma is real 

Vicarious trauma is when you are psychologically affected by being exposed to someone else's traumatic experience. When this is a short-term response it's often called secondary trauma and can make you feel temporarily low or angry. When this becomes long term it can affect your whole worldview.

When you’re working on sensitive training material you need to remember: you don't avoid the trauma, instead, you minimise the impact of it.

How to minimise the impact

1. Recognise and acknowledge it

This is an absolute must. You have to face the fact that you feel bad because you have empathised with the people who experienced the terrible event. It isn’t ‘silly’ or ‘daft’, it’s natural. Recognise these emotions for what they are and acknowledge them.

2. Breathe

Give yourself permission to step away from the emotive work and take a breath. Clear your head with a walk, get coffee with a co-worker, and talk about something that makes you happy (or at least doesn’t make you sad). Taking little breaks whenever you feel the emotion is building too much helps to bring you back to neutral.

I hold a briefing session with the team members who are going to be involved in the project to give them an overview of the content in my own words

3. Manage your exposure

If you are working with emotive content every single day, you will start to suffer long-term negative effects. Try to intersperse this emotionally heavy work with other projects that are lighter, for example, a project on communication skills, a mini task to improve project documentation practices or designing a piece for a demo reel.

If your work requires you to face this kind of material every day, discuss methods of support with your manager – did you know that all kinds of professionals have regular counselling sessions arranged to help them manage their own emotional wellbeing when dealing with distressing situations, why couldn’t you have the same?

Supporting your team

If you are a manager, you need to take these measures one step further and support your team to work with difficult subject matters. This is what I do for my team:

1. Prepare myself

I always make sure I have read the materials I am passing on to my team so I have an idea of the magnitude of emotional discomfort it is going to cause.

2. Prepare the team member

I hold a briefing session with the team members who are going to be involved in the project to give them an overview of the content in my own words. Do this face-to-face wherever possible so you can read their body language and facial expressions. By controlling how you present the topic to them you can start to assess how much of an issue the content might cause.

3. Tap out for a free card

I always end the briefing by giving the team members a safe way for them to tell me that the topic is too much, something like ‘I recognise that this is a sensitive topic, you know you can always take a break if you need to, or we can go get a coffee and have a chat. If at any point you feel like you cannot continue with it, just tell me.

I cried for the man that died on the workshop floor, and for his friends and colleagues who witnessed his suffering

I will not ask you why.’ I cannot stress how important it is to explicitly state that you know the work is tough and that you will not ask prying questions if, for example, they tell you they are losing sleep over the domestic violence module, or the section on threatened miscarriage is too upsetting for them at this time.

I cried for the man that died on the workshop floor, and for his friends and colleagues who witnessed his suffering. Then I went for a run, cleared my head, and when I came back I went back to writing the training that would form part of a seismic shift in safety behaviour that would ultimately prevent anyone else from suffering that fate.

Interested in this topic? Read Little things reduce mental health stigma.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting article Harri –
    Interesting article Harri – thank you. We think a lot about giving our learners ‘health warnings’ before embarking on potentially traumatic subject matter, but maybe think less about the impact on ourselves when we design and / or deliver it.


  2. I completely agree with your
    I completely agree with your article!

    My job as a web designer sometimes causes me certain stomach upsets, stress and responsibilities often go beyond

    Thanks for sharing this amazing information! Greetings

    Gustavo Guzmán Sepúlveda.

Author Profile Picture
Harri Savage

Online Learning Specialist

Read more from Harri Savage

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