Considering the potential impact that PSR factors have on the health and well-being of workers and, consequently, on the productivity and growth of organizations, their identification is essential to outline measures that ensure better emotional and time management and stress experienced by workers. This study aimed to contribute to this domain, identifying work-related PSR in a sample of Portuguese VSW, focusing on the period of the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be noted that the identification of PSR constitutes an important opportunity to identify potential risk areas for improvement in the organization of work, that is, a means of identifying and prioritizing problems, to develop and implement appropriate interventions within the workplace [2].

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the VSW (52.6%) that participated in this study were working from home, thus being more exposed to a set of specific risks, e.g., isolation, confusing boundaries between work and family, greater risk of conflicts and domestic violence, with possible impact on mental health [28]. After the first lockdown, 44.9% of VSW advanced to mixed work, maintaining exposure to the aforementioned risks. Indeed, a Portuguese study developed by Gaspar et al. [6] to analyse the impact of COVID-19 on global health and PSR at work concluded by the greatest PSR at work, namely the bulk of the responsibility, intellectual effort, multitasking, and overall stress. The association of these risks to work tasks, emotional and cognitive demands, health, and well-being enhances the vulnerability of workers and their greater difficulty in managing the personal and professional challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, mental health was affected in the general public when compared to before the pandemic outbreak [31]. A worsening of certain health symptoms (e.g., insomnia, depression, anxiety, burnout, headaches and fatigue), an increase in risk behaviors related to lifestyles (e.g., sleeping habits, physical activity, food, screen time, consumption among others) or changes related to family and work (e.g., associated with confinement and teleworking) were verified with COVID-19 [6]. In the particular case of the VSW, their exposure to victims with traumatic experiences constitutes an increased risk for developing other psychological problems considering the difficulties of their tasks [8, 9], which include vicarious trauma, burnout [10], or even PTSD [11, 12]. On the other hand, the necessary and greater digitization of the work imposed by the pandemic [4] constitutes another challenge for the VSW, requiring specific knowledge and handling of different digital solutions. In this study, VSW reported greater telephone use (43.9% reported using it always and 37.2% using it frequently), opposite to other forms of remote support, e.g., social/mobile applications or videoconference. Such results may be explained by the lack of training of VSW in the use of these technologies and the fact that technological/digital innovations have not been previously considered from a strategical point of view [26]. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic brought numerous challenges to VSW, namely having to provide remote support, which had never occurred before at such a scale, and there was, until now, a procedural protocol in this regard.

Considering the dimensions and subscales assessed by COPSOQ II, a positive result was found, showing that most psychosocial factors, e.g., self-efficacy, the meaning of work, job satisfaction, and leadership quality, are shown to be favourable to the health of VSW. However, there are also moderate (e.g., work pace, quantitative demands, influence at work, job insecurity, sleep problems, burnout, stress) and severe (cognitive and emotional demands) risk factors that deserve some attention and concern, supporting the development of efforts that enable further management to minimize/eliminate them. Then, this study shows that the most common and severe risk factors for VSW are related to cognitive and emotional demands within the job context, confirming the challenging component of tasks performed by VSW as an area of high risk and challenges [29]. Effectively, it has been shown that VSW, in the specific demands of their tasks of providing support to traumatized populations, are also at risk of developing a variety of psychological problems, including burnout or even PTSD [8, 9].

In the present study, the impact of PSR was uneven, considering the age groups and the working conditions in which the VSW are inserted. Thus, VSW over 36 years old scored more in job insecurity, burnout, and offensive behaviour. These results are contrary to what was observed in the aforementioned Portuguese study developed by Gaspar et al. [6], in which younger professionals, i.e., 35 years or less, present more PSR of work, greater impact of COVID-19 on work intensity, and negative evolution of health symptoms. Considering the characteristics of the sample in the present study, which is mostly comprised of women, it can be hypothesized that this could be a group of women with school-age children requiring greater support during the COVID-19 pandemic period and, consequently, experiencing greater difficulty in balancing job functions and family life [30].

Regarding the working conditions of the VSW, some favourable psychosocial factors were identified. The VSW who were working f2f scored higher in the possibilities of development and meaning of work when compared with those who are performing functions in remote work, which is explained by the vulnerabilities and obstacles inherent in the use of digital tools necessary to contact and support the victims [31], particularly in terms of establishing a relationship and communication with the victim, give emotional support or even for risk assessment purposes. That is why digital solutions should not replace the f2f support but rather constitute an important alternative and complement to assist victims [32]. Also, VSW that were in remote work reported higher scores in self-efficacy when compared to mixed work, which may be understandable due to the greater demands and challenges that the reconciliation of f2f work and remote work imposes on the personal and family life of these specific workers. In PSR, the main differences in the working condition of the VSW were identified at the level of the dimensions of work demands, health and well-being, and offensive behaviours. More specifically, VSW in f2f work scored higher in terms of emotional demands and stress when compared to those were in remote work, differing even in terms of the stress experienced by VSWs in mixed work. Also, in terms of offensive behaviour, VSW from f2f scored higher when compared to those in mixed work. These results on the PSR seem to suggest that the VSW perceive f2f work as representing a greater risk to their health and well-being. The fact that this study was conducted during the first wave of COVID-19 in Portugal, a period in which more measures to contain the disease were being tested, and when there was still great uncertainty about the spread of the virus, may help to understand the greater threat associated with f2f work. Effectively, other authors [12] have shown that fear of COVID-19 fully mediates the relationship between negative affect and well-being and may also partially mediate the relationship between negative affect and PTSD symptoms. This apparent VSW’s sense of insecurity regarding f2f work may also be translated into the unpreparedness and inexistence of a plan for organizations to continue to ensure f2f work with the total safety of their workers.

Despite the contributions of this study, it has some limitations that must be overcome in future studies. Firstly, our sample was mainly composed of women (91.8%) because of the greater female representation to perform the role of VSW. When considering that the study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic period, it is important to reflect on the results obtained, including, for example, the influence that the adaptations to remote work caused. Subscales such as work/family conflict, support from supervisors, commitment to the workplace, work pace, and quantitative demands in work may reflect some challenges arising from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The instrument used, the COPSOQ II, is not sensitive to this factor, so it will be important in future studies to assess in what conditions and/or contexts the VSW perform their functions, that is, if f2f or remote work. The present study used a quantitative methodology of an exploratory type, using self-report measures, so it is necessary to invest in more qualitative studies that allow an in-depth approach to the phenomenon of PSR involved in VSW through individual interviews or sessions of a focus group. Complementary data collection methods such as observation may also be used. Finally, in the present study, it was not possible to carry out analyses based on the gender of the participants. Considering the evidence that men and women experience different types of trauma or the possibility of gender-specific expressions of emotional distress (e.g., 29), the impact of COVD-19 on gender inequality [33] as well the gender differences in PSR found in the general Portuguese population [6], further studies should thus seek to explore the gender differences involved. Longitudinal designs that allow a deeper understanding of the PSR factors are also necessary in this context.

The findings of this study have important implications for the promotion of the mental health and well-being of VSW and contribute to improving the organization of work and, consequently, increasing productivity and organizational growth. Organisations working with traumatised people must develop effective guidelines and protocols to identify and support workers showing signs of vicarious trauma, i.e., disseminate indicators of vicarious trauma, help procedures, identify formal sources of help, and create appropriate spaces for practice self-care. Other self-care strategies have been suggested, such as taking care of oneself physically and emotionally, getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising, or having time for self-reflection, being the organizations responsible for promoting it in a safe, supportive, and respectful environment [33]. VSW should be provided with a support network and be able to disclose any concerns. It is also essential to provide training on PSR, health, and well-being in the workplace to promote greater knowledge and awareness of professionals. Therefore, it is important to promote VSW training to make them aware of the risks of their work, how to deal with the challenges of this work, and how to seek support. Implement actions to promote psychological health in the workplace, develop support measures that favour a balance between professional and personal life, and promote peer support strategies, e.g., peer support, are all important strategies that will contribute to minimizing the PSR involved in VSW tasks.

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