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Stress and trauma dynamics among staff members

Reaction to working in contexts of violence: for example, perpetrator-victim attributions between team members at work.

Staff in organisations working in contexts of violence (e.g. refugees/IDP, domestic violence or wartime violence) are frequently subjected to ongoing, high levels of stress – whether this is caused by their direct contact to victims of violence or through continually reading or hearing about acts of violence. In post-conflict regions, the staff themselves have often experienced violence directly. Quite possibly they are also subjected to threats or insults because they assume a public and political position against violence.

Collective patterns of behaviour can reflect the dynamics of trauma and stress

Symptoms of stress and trauma can then be transferred among members of staff within an organisation. One of the reasons for this lies in our brain’s ‘mirror neurons’, which lead to us developing the same emotional state as a person we are in contact with. In cases of stress, frequently there is a transfer of the strong activation of the autonomic nervous system (arousal); in chronic situations of stress this might then become a continuous state (hyperarousal). In organisations whose staff are frequently subjected to stress or even traumatic stress, these transfer processes establish themselves as collective behaviour patterns which reflect the dynamics of stress and trauma.

Excessive excitement or nervousness, perpetrator-victim attributions, disunity, and decreased empathy

These dynamics can result in major reactions to minor problems, or unusually quick victim-perpetrator role attribution and adoption, or disunity in working groups and teams. Conflicts often appear to threaten the very existence of the team. None of this is conducive to a calm and reflected manner of carrying out projects. Collective dynamics of stress and trauma also reduce the level of sensitivity and empathy among those affected. The causes of this include the effects of cortisol and adrenalin: a high concentration of these stress hormones restricts our attention (tunnel view) and puts our whole organism into a state of alert. Our social and emotional perceptive capacity also deteriorates.