Avoiding Burnout At The Digital Forensics Coalface

Dr. Sally Kelty: Good afternoon, everybody and welcome from a beautiful sunny afternoon in Canberra Australia. I’d like to thank the conference organizers for the invitation to come and talk to you today.

My name is Dr. Sally Kelty. I’m a criminologist and also an organizational psychologist. So you might be thinking, why have we got an organizational psychologist at our forensic science conference? I’ve come to talk to you today about how organizations can put strategies in place that may assist in reducing the risk of stress within digital forensics teams. 

The research that I’m going to talk about today is not just myself. Here’s my team. I have Emma and Carly who worked with me at the university of Canberra. And Mr. Nathan Green, some of you may know, is the officer in charge of the digital forensics team at the Australian federal police.

So today we’re going to start talking about what this term means and what is “organizational stress” and we’re also going to have a discussion about why should I, as a digital forensics person, be interested in stress related factors.

Placing and including forensic science and including forensic scientists and practitioners who work within policing and private policing agencies are routinely and frequently exposed to challenging and harrowing incidents involving personal crime, interpersonal crime. And it can be in person, or it can be what’s called secondary exposure, which is often what digital forensics teams experience, which is digital imaging. And actually so seeing and hearing things in real time or post-event of various kinds of criminal activity.

Occupational stress itself is a phenomena and we will talk about what the kind of sentence and what, what occupational stress is in a few slides time, but it has very, very high associated costs with it.

The costs are financially, and personally, for both the person and also to their family, to their colleagues and their teams that they work with, and also for the organizations. Somebody who goes off on personal injury or a stress leave, in Australia we call it a Comcare claim.

Most Comcare claims are over a million dollars. It also in reality takes up to six years or more to develop the skills of a digital forensics and also other types of forensic scientists. So you are highly skilled practitioners and trying to avoid managing stress is a good thing when we look at the actual implications, just financially from a pure economic perspective, but also from a very, very deeply personal perspective.

When people are exposed to high stress occupations and start to develop things like job strain and burnout, this is associated with poor decision-making. It’s also associated with making/creating low mental reasoning, which means abstract reasoning, being able to think outside the square, being able to think on your feet really fast, to be able to observe things in real time or post events.

It actually impacts on your ability to actually do your work well. So when people are suffering from occupational stress, they don’t cannot mentally bring their A-game to work, which has an impact on their team and has an impact on the police investigations that are going on. Workplace stress is also highly related to absenteeism, high turnover, very, very high unsafe use of substances, mostly alcohol. It’s also involved in people wanting to take early retirement, quitting, and high intentions to quit. And it also that creates low morale within teams.

It’s also related to premature death and creates a lot of tension outside of work. It’s very, very highly related to what we call “marital disharmony”. So high levels of marital conflict, I’m not talking about physical conflict, but mostly mental conflict.

Stress and burnout in digital forensics. First of all, I wanted to point out that the world health organization has become more and more concerned with how organizations manage the stress within their workers. In Australia, Lifeline did some research and looked at levels of suicide and found that 20% of all suicides in Australia are linked to work-related stress.

We don’t actually know the rates of occupational stress or job related job stress if you like in digital forensics teams within Australia. But we do know that in the U.S, some larger studies have looked at it, finding about 44.4% of not just digital forensic scientists, but forensic scientists in general, including digital forensics teams, say that they feel some kind of pressure created from the work from often from what they see and have to cope with on the job on a daily basis. 

What they say is that they feel tension within themselves and often to relieve or how to cope, they will drink at unsafe levels. Of this 44% who say that they drink at unsafe levels to deal and cope with the experiences and the things that they are experienced to and exposed to in the work. Only around 10% of these scientists said that they would get professional help to look at better ways of coping rather than turning to excessive or unsafe alcohol use. They report of this 44% that say that they have experienced difficulties when they come home from work, the most common symptoms that they report is difficulty sleeping at night.

So difficulty actually getting to sleep, and when they wake up, they don’t feel rested. Well, earlier I was talking to you about the level of cognition within digital forensics. If you don’t sleep well, this affects your ability to have a really sharp commission and to be able to think on your feet and to use abstract reasoning, and also to be able to concentrate for long periods of time.

So sleep is really important. And one of the things that stress does is actually impacts the quality of your sleep. So, some people may report that they have difficulty getting to sleep. Others say, no, no, I get to sleep very well, but the sleep is disturbed. And when they wake up, they don’t feel refreshed. This will have an impact on most people. I put at the bottom of this slide, this is some very very recent research, starting round about 2014.

There’s been some targeted research on stress within digital forensics teams. So I’ve put some references there for you. And primarily they are building a body of evidence that looks at the high risk nature of the work and optimal coping strategies within individuals.

So today’s presentation is, I have been looking at occupational stress factors. I’ve been teasing apart, there are two factors to what we call “job stress”. So, there are personal factors and social factors, and a lot of the research deals with personal and social factors. So these are the impacts of job-related stressful people and how people cope with it.

Then there’s a second thing, which is the organizational factors. And these are things that work does that creates stressful people. In the research, a lot of the stress that’s caused by organization and management practice, if you like, isn’t actually talked about. So what I’m going to talk to you about today is what is it that organizations and management can do to reduce stress risk within their organization?

I said that there were two different factors. One is the individual level factor, which is things like personal factors, which involves your own personal level of stress and your own personal level of felt, anxiety. Sleeping problems we mentioned. And then there’s this thing called ‘adaptive’ and ‘maladaptive’ coping strategies. So adaptive strategies seem to be people in high risk occupations, find, for example, they create a work-life balance.

They have lots of hobbies, they have lots of different things that they do, creative outlets that actually help them manage the experiences of working within a high risk occupation. Maladaptive coping strategies are mostly alcohol use, but we’re talking about unsafe alcohol use, many many glasses of wine, bottle of wine per night or more and high levels of unsafe, which leads to physical ailments, liver disease, et cetera.

Now, the social factors that create stress within people are the strength of your relationship. If you have a poor relationship that can create stress, if your home environment is unstable, if you don’t have work-life balance and you don’t have, or don’t get downtime. These are those kind of social factors outside work, that when you bring job stress home, don’t help.

Now, we’re going to move on to what we call occupational stress and the workplace factors, which is what we’re going to be talking about. Now, this is what’s called, this idea about occupational stress has levels where it starts with this concept called job strain, which is where the demands placed on the person exceed their capacity to function at work properly.

If job strain goes on for too long and it’s poorly managed, it can lead to what’s called “burnout” and burnout in people, it’s a term that gets thrown around a lot. But actual burnout looks quite serious and severe, but it’s not secondary or post traumatic stress that people talk about. Burnout is related to cynicism and this high intention to quit. And it’s also where the person disengages from work. So you’ll experience people putting their work down, not so interested in performing, not so interested in being part of the team, and often burnout can be corrected by around about six to eight weeks and work is what it takes to actually reduce the impact of stress.

So the concepts that we’re looking at, mostly. where organizations can have the biggest impact is with juicing job strain for their staff and reducing job strain that leads to burnout. So this is the kind of context upon which I’ve been working with the AFP.

Let’s have a look at these, and I don’t think it’s hard for people to imagine, if you’re in this kind of environment where two different types of organizational factors or “on the job” stress factors, let’s say. One is the context in which you’re working and this is if you have high levels of job insecurity in Australia, we have high, high levels of casualization. And I’m not suggesting within digital forensics teams with job insecurity. But if you do experience some kind of insecurity within your team, or even insecurity with where you’re working, I do keep being deployed constantly to different places and it’s outside of your control.

This creates job context factors, stress factors. If you have unclear performance practice, if you’re performing in your job but you don’t quite know whether you’re performing well or what the outcomes are, what people are expecting of you. If you work within a team where it’s you have unsupportive team members. So team members who are always backstabbing each other or not cohesive, not working together, highly competitive.

It is really, really not conducive to having a low stress environment. If your supervisor is unsupportive, if there is some kind of low level, it doesn’t have to be high-level, low-level bullying and low-level harassment. Workplace culture, whether it was poor communication, workplace culture where for example, things just happen, poorly managed occupational change, you’re going to work, you’re going to move office. And also whether it’s poor promotion of staff work-life balance. So “work life balance”, what’s that? There are a lot of within placing organizations.

They can be where you are married to the job. The job is fundamentally important to everything. Why do you want to have work life balance? You know, the job is everything, your identity. So when you put all those together, you have basically very, very low levels of personal control. Things happen to you, around you, and you don’t really have a lot of say about how you can do that. Now context factors, where you’re given tasks, that you have very, very limited meaning, you are given unachievable workloads, shift work that impacts family and social relationships, and it’s constant. And it’s changed constantly changeable. You have little involvement in workplace decision-making, no control over work processes, and poor work environment.

It sounds like an awful place to work, doesn’t it? And it’s very rare for people to experience all of these things together. But for example, even just with job context actors, if there are bullying harassment issues at work, if you have a really unsupportive supervisor, and if you have unachievable workload, this creates strain, especially unachievable workloads.

So the experience of job strain and job strain is where the individual is for example, given an unachievable workload and an unsupportive supervisor who just thinks that, “well, you need to work harder than don’t you?”. If you actually mentioned your workload to them. What happens when you’re experiencing workload is that you generally, for example, psychological reactions, you start to snap at people. You start to have higher levels of anxiety, more easily frustrated, and you start to become dissatisfied with your job because your job is unachievable.

Physical symptoms start to be things like headache, dizziness, you feel your heart pounding, and then you have also the sleep problems. So your sleep is disturbed. Even if you fall asleep quickly, it’s disturbed and it’s not restful. So you feel tired most of the time. And the behavioural reactions to stress, is silly things like accidents. You might start cutting yourself chopping onions at home. You might start substance use, as we saw before up to 40% of forensic scientists readily admit that they drink too much to cope with the work environment that they have, and then there’s turnover and absenteeism.

How do organizations manage stress? This is actually the research that I’ve been doing with the AFP with Nathan Green’s team for the last couple of years. And I’ve started stage one of this project was to put together ‘what is the evidence base on stress within digital forensics teams’? And is there something that organizations can do? Is there something that the AFP and other placing agencies, small things, small changes for major wins.

So small tweaks, big outputs. That was kind of what I was looking for. And what I did was I looked at the evidence, the research base to actually see what have people done in the past? And can we pull this together and come up with some strategies? As I had mentioned that a lot of the research to date has looked at what individuals can do for themselves. The research that I have done with AFP is looking at what organizations can do to assist in job strain, the risk of job strain being reduced within their organization. So we found four different key factors, very, very prominent in the literature and/or underpinned by robust research and replication research. And so we’ll go through these four factors now.

So the first one is never underestimate the impact of a supervisor and a team leader. So many times within placing agencies and within forensic science agencies, people are promoted because they are really, really top class practitioners. You know, they’re really good police investigators, they’re really good forensic scientists, absolutely top of their game.

Sometimes, and it’s not a criticism, this is just where things could improve, that a lot of people get promoted but they don’t get the training to have the people skills to run teams. So they may be top class practitioners. It doesn’t necessarily translate that they’re going to be amazing supervisors. Leadership, is some people say, are you born with kind of leadership style? Are you born with the ability to supervise people? To motivate people? Some people are more charismatic than others. Yes. But can you train people to be better leaders? Yes, you can.

So first, really, really good supervisors and team leaders act as a buffer against job related stress. And what we do know is that this is a unique skill set that can be developed. And there are types of courses and reading, podcasts, or leadership development training, and it’s pivotal to develop these skills within teams themselves.

I think it’s easier to actually look at this slide because I think when we talk about who is a good supervisor, who is a good leader, when we turn and look at who is not, it’s actually easier to see who could be. So when we look at the supervisors who actually increased levels of occupational stress. So when you have a supervisor who does these kinds of behaviors, you actually increase the level of job-related stress for employees.

So inflexible in decisions “it’s my way or the highway”, the micromanagers, the people who come out and constantly watch what you do. They don’t empower you to actually do anything. Micromanagers are also unable to accept that their team members will make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. That’s what being human is about, but micromanagers are inflexible to mistakes being made, which means that people don’t function at their best because they’re always kind of watching out. They’re primarily concerned with budgets. It’s all about money. It’s not about people. It’s all about how much money can we save rather than how can we enhance the working situation of our people.

Supervisors, who actually reduce organizational stress within their teams have these kinds of qualities. They were an integral part of the team. They didn’t suddenly become a micromanager. They still remained a part of the team and saw themselves as part of the team, regardless of whatever title they were given.

They were also very, very knowledgeable about the specific work demands placed on their staff and they tried to even out work allocation, or they made sure that their staff knew in advance. Or they were very good at managing, if something came up out of the blue and they had to deploy a team, they were very good at actually focusing on what the team needs to do, and then what the team needs to do when it’s finished. They seem to be able to promote mutual trust. They were very open with their staff. And they used their role, administrative role, to support investigators, to focus on their own roles.

They work strategically to lessen overload. So they actually had an idea about, they cared about the team and what people were doing, and they tried to be equitable for everybody. And they took a very sort of hands-off approach. It didn’t mean that they just left the team. It just meant that they allowed their team to make mistakes. They allowed their team to actually work out how they would manage the workload, how they would manage their time a little better. And often what they would do is they would give the staff a task, and then leave the staff to use their own expertise, to actually get stuff done.

They also took a very, very strict line about mandatory psychological appointments. So people, once they had experienced something that was quite harrowing, debriefing was a good idea. So in these teams with supportive team leaders who reduced occupational stress, being able to be part of a team where there has been an incident or investigation that has been quite harrowing for, many of you, let’s just say a child exploitation case. It’s okay to admit that within these teams, that it was just awful, that what happened to the children was awful. And it was okay to say that in teams where occupational stress is enhanced, it’s not okay to be able to say that. They don’t allow for debriefing within their own teams.

Effective work environments. This is really interesting because mostly around the world, we’ve got tightening budgets. We’ve got in many countries, the ability to purchase equipment has reduced, the ability for agencies and a lot of R and D money has disappeared through sort of government budget cuts, not even organizational budget cuts. 

The evidence around the physical space. So within, within the research, within digital forensics teams, where they say that there are factors within where they work, that decrease the job related stress that they feel, and that is they need to have a place where productivity occurs, but also where camaraderie occurs. They need tea rooms and they need spaces where they can go in and debrief. 

We all know that police and forensic scientists use black humor as a way to deal with certain situations and their caseloads and certain things within cases. What’s happening in a lot of offices is this idea of open plan offices and rotating staff, rotating the desk situation where people don’t actually have a desk anymore. You just go in and it’s all open plan space.

And the idea behind this was to actually encourage people, especially within forensic science labs, for digital forensics people to meet DNA people and crime scene examiners and to work as a holistic place. But what that’s actually created, and that’s a great thing, silos within forensic science is not a good thing. But not having a space to debrief is also not a good thing. 

So future direction for most organizations is – ask their staff “is this workplace fit for purpose or not”. Have we actually talked to people before we changed the work environment? Or what do people need to work well? So is that the type of exposure that creates the stress? And so we don’t know. So what we need to do is have a look at the types of, an analysis, looking at patterns within worker’s injury claims. Look at patterns within, does the injury claim level actually relate to different types of exposure or to different forms of material, or does it not matter?

Some people will just be prone regardless of what they look at, regardless of the duration, or the type. The last study I’m going to talk about is ‘attributes of top performing forensic experts’. This is the work that I’m going to start doing with the AFP once the COVID situation drops and we can do some interstate travel. As most of the world is affected by limitations about where you can travel. 

So doing this kind of work means that you need to go and talk to people and you need to go interstate. So, the evidence today is robust that digital forensics teams are at high risk of developing job related stress and/or burnout. But not all digital forensics practitioners do experience psychological injury. And who are they? Who are the people who are top performers in their field and are robust and resilient? It’s some work that I have done over a period of time, looking at top performing crime scene examiners and creating a profile of the top performing resilient crime scene examiners around Australia. I intend to actually enhance this method and look at this with digital forensics experts. I’m also hoping to present this work at the IAFS conference in 2023 in Sydney.

I just want to thank the Australian federal police and the forensic services for funding this project upon which I’m working. The field work with the digital forensics teams will start when we can. And as I said, I’m going to try and present this work at IAFS in 2023. 

Does anybody have any questions for me at this point? If you do, I also have a contact email there. If you want to talk, flick me an email. If you want to comment on anything, that would be great. And my presentation today is also going to be in the form of one of the conference papers that will be in the FSI digital investigation, special conference edition. Thank you.

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