Thursday, April 4, 2024

     At the University of Iowa, our faculty and staff wield transformative influence in myriad ways. Some perform life-saving surgeries, others foster student growth, altering life trajectories. As a threat manager and staff advocate for University of Iowa Health Care, I like to think that I change lives through empathic listening, an art of deliberate care and understanding toward those who share their struggles. A faculty member, actively experiencing intimate partner violence at home and being stalked, seeks refuge at work. A patient care technician, assaulted and groped by a patient in an unfamiliar unit, dreads being assigned there again. A doctor, threatened by a frustrated patient, worries for his safety when leaving work. A clerk, verbally abused by a visitor with profanity and vulgarity, cannot stop replaying the incident in her mind. 

Beyond the confines of lectures and medical charts, health care and higher education professionals confront domestic violence, harassment, and workplace aggression. Despite their ability to compartmentalize, these challenges sometimes breach their defenses, necessitating support. This is where I come in. 

I witness firsthand the emotional toll borne by employees. I have supported anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, dread, anger, fear, pain, guilt, disgust, moral injury, and more. If you have experienced these feelings in the workplace, you are not alone. The toll on the well-being of health care workers is especially profound, as they experience an increased risk of physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. Those tasked with helping others heal can find themselves grappling with their own wounds, both visible and hidden.

My goal as a threat assessor and manager is to respond to what I call the “slow burning” embers of incidents that cause concern for targeted harm. I am called upon to assess the situation by collecting information, then plan interventions that help mitigate the risk of targeted violence using a balanced, compassionate, problem-solving approach. My role as a staff advocate dovetails well with threat assessment because I intertwine empathy with proactive safety measures to help create a secure environment.

Each story of adversity I encounter underscores the importance of empathic listening. I have been awed by the resiliency that surfaces when people feel seen and heard before moving toward problem-solving. It seems so simple, but it can be so profound to listen, seek to understand, and then work with the person to find a solution that works for them.

Recently, I had the honor of supporting a nurse who shared: “As a nurse, I had worked very hard to not let home and work life intermingle and, on the day I met Nima, I had no semblance of tranquility or sense of safety in any aspect of my life. While I generally pride myself on keeping a level head in any and every situation, I completely fell apart. Nima never once made me feel shameful, uncomfortable, or like I was overreacting to my situation. Nima stood by my side throughout the whole process and kept my head above water when I swore I was going to drown.” 

This nurse’s resilience, once obscured, resurfaced through compassionate support.  

When I pause and take some deep belly breaths to clear the clutter in my mind and be fully present as a person who works at Iowa, I see much better outcomes in terms of stress management, work engagement, and follow through with resources.

Distraught and emotionally drained, professionals like the nurse I helped face burnout and decreased job satisfaction, exacerbating the challenges of a demanding profession in academia and health care. However, through connection, support, and empathic listening, effects of violence can be mitigated, and people can find their way through. 

Iowa has several resources for mental health support and offices such as Title IX, dedicated to investigating and providing a pathway toward accountability for those who cause harm.

Campus police officers and hospital safety and security officers, along with the Threat Assessment Team, provide an assessment and management to mitigate the risk of violence. Staff advocates, such as myself and COPE (Caring for Our People) team members, provide emotional support to health care providers who have experienced difficult situations

Counselors at the Rape Victim Advocacy Program or Domestic Violence Intervention Program, licensed clinicians in the Employment Assistance Program or the Women’s Resource Action Center provide connection, guidance, and support. The Mental Health at Iowa website has more information about each of the resources mentioned above.

I am privileged to care and support those who provide care and education on our campus. It is humbling to serve those who serve others so they can provide care with resilience and compassion. You do not have to struggle silently and alone. I am here. We are here. You absolutely matter!

Cover image by Getty Images Pro.