Managing trauma at the RSPCA: ‘It’s definitely not all fluffy bunnies and cute puppies’

Watercooler-Ben Strangwood

When many of us think of the RSPCA we imagine heroic scenes of uniformed inspectors rescuing cute puppies with smiles all round… but the reality can be far more traumatic.

Employees are often faced with terrible scenes of neglect, with animals in pain, as well as being confronted by owners who are often struggling with mental illness, financial worries or anger issues. Physical and verbal abuse is not uncommon, as is being locked into a property with an owner.

For these reasons, the introduction of TRiM (trauma risk management) as a way of managing trauma at work, has helped in supporting those employees who have experienced traumatic events, and in hopefully preventing these experiences causing mental health issues, including PTSD. 

We spoke to Ben Strangwood, Wellbeing Adviser at RSPCA, who won our Make A Difference Award for ‘Unsung Hero’ in April (photo above is of him picking up his award at The Watercooler Event) to find out more. The organisation also won our award for the ‘Employer that has made the most difference to workplace mental health and wellbeing in the public sector / non profit organisation’.

Congratulations on your award. You’re new to the wellbeing team, aren’t you?

Yes, I’ve been in the RSPCA for 20 years, 19 of them at the coalface, within the Inspectorate, as a frontline uniformed officer. But I moved over to the wellbeing team to cover for the Wellbeing Adviser when she went on maternity leave. I was looking for a bit of a career change.

As a newcomer to the wellbeing function, what were your thoughts?

The first few months I had a bit of imposter syndrome, but luckily the wellbeing plan was laid out to follow. I also had a lot of positive feedback from people that I was coming to wellbeing from the operational side. 

What advantages do you think operational experience brings to wellbeing?

I know what it’s like, and I’ve also had periods of poor mental health myself, probably related to the job, so I understand what it’s like to deal with animals that have been neglected and abused and have witnessed outright cruelty. 

In this job, you see a lot of things that ‘normal’ people don’t see. It’s definitely not all fluffy bunnies and cute puppies. The other big issue is that Inspectorate Officers work alone, so you may not see colleagues very often so are having to rely on yourself. 

Have you spoken openly about your mental health experiences?

If I’m talking to people, then I’ll bring it into conversation and I don’t make a secret of it but I don’t sing it from the rooftops. 

Our Chief Veterinary Officer Caroline Allen has been open about her struggles and talked about them in an article in our internal communications, because she’s really passionate about wellbeing. The impact of her doing this is that it starts conversations and gives permission for others to talk about it.

How do you support the wellbeing of someone in that role, working alone and exposed to traumatic events?

It’s difficult for managers to even recognise when somebody might be struggling because they might not see them very often. And you’re not having those valuable, little conversations catching up. That’s why we introduced TRiM. 

Tell us about TRiM….

It’s there to help people cope with potentially traumatic experiences by talking about them openly and understanding them. 

It’s a peer to peer support system and we now have 22 people trained to do this support role. They’re not counsellors, they are employees who want to take on this additional role who really understand and can empathise with what you’re going through, because they’ve probably experienced it too. I think that is more powerful than a counsellor who doesn’t understand the field you’re in.

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People can refer themselves for TRiM, or a manager/colleague can refer a team member but it’s all completely confidential. We give them the option of whether they want us to raise anything with their manager or not.

What do you talk about with TRiM and how does it help?

You talk about what life was like before, the incident itself, and afterwards, and how it’s affected you. So, for example, exploring whether you are holding on to guilt or blame, experiencing difficulties sleeping, or relying more on alcohol, whether you have a support system in place, etc.

It looks at risks and triggers and we signpost people to appropriate support. After the initial meeting, there’s a follow up a week later, then another about four to six weeks later. During that period you’d expect to see a reduction in the negative stresses and indicators.

Rather than having people suffer in silence, or handling it themselves, TRiM is a way of supporting them so they don’t bury it away, which has been my downfall in the past but it’s not healthy. 

Some of your officers can carry firearms, captive bolts (which can stun animals) and certain drugs. How does that add to the complexity of your challenge?

Well, ultimately it means officers have things that they can use for self-harm so we need to continually assess the risks. So if somebody is starting to struggle with mental health, we need to consider their access to these things. 

For firearms, for example, if someone is diagnosed with depression or anxiety, we have no choice but to remove the firearm to comply with the law. Other instances aren’t so clear, and we have recently introduced a panel to consider more complex cases, to support the line manager.

What have you learnt from introducing TRiM?

That these feelings are normal, even though there’s still some stigma attached to them. Also, what people find traumatic varies from person to person based on their own experience.

What advice do you have for other wellbeing professionals thinking about TRiM?

Definitely do it. There are a few different options out there but the models are largely similar in what they’re trying to achieve.

How much has implementing TRiM cost?

It costs about £800 to train a practitioner, and then extra training for managers who look after the practitioners, and occasional refresher training. But the set-up cost, and the employees’ time, are the main costs. 

What feedback have you had about TRiM?

We have a feedback form that practitioners send to people once they’ve finished working with them and these have been overwhelmingly positive. 100% of respondents have said they would use the service again. We’ve had around 80 referrals (our organisation is about 1500) with this service so far.

You also include workplace mediation, to help resolve conflict, as part of your wellbeing plan too. Tell me more about that.

That’s led by our HR team. We have people that have been trained to be workplace mediators to help with fractious relationships in the workplace where people aren’t getting on and it’s having an effect on the team. It’s a way of being more proactive before, for example, things escalate to grievances. Employees who have used it have said it’s been really helpful.

You also have something called ‘Work in Confidence’ which is all about giving employees the psychological safety to speak up – can you tell me about that?

Yes. This is a confidential speak-up platform. So, it’s not whistleblowing per se, but it’s a way to raise a concern without putting your head above the parapet because it’s anonymous. 

We have a list of people within our organisation who are set up to receive these concerns and can ensure it gets seen by the relevant person and addressed.

They might say something like ‘my manager is not doing X or Y’ or they might bring to attention something they don’t agree with, or an issue with a process. We’ve had over 150 queries since we introduced it. 

There’s also a code of conduct surrounding the fact that the concerns must be raised in a professional and respectful manner.

So, it can also be a useful way to identify issues that might harbour as resentments otherwise and adversely affect culture?

Yes, it can highlight concerns in different areas or  a department or processes, even. 

At the end of the day, all these initiatives come back to creating psychological safety and being able to say things without fear of being criticised or judged, which is so important for healthy workplaces, especially ones like ours where staff are potentially exposed to traumatic experiences.

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