Caring for the Mental Health of Language Professionals
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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. During this period, organizations seek to raise awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on physical, emotional, and mental well-being. What does it mean for the language services industry? What are the negative effects of working as an interpreter, translator, project manager, or in any other role in the industry? With this blog, we hope to shed some light on the work-induced mental trauma that language professionals may experience and strategies to help them cope.
In the language industry, it’s all about words. Dealing with words may not seem like a high-risk profession, and for the majority of language professionals, it may not be. However, some face tough challenges that can affect them to their core. All interpreting minutes aren’t equal. All words to translate aren’t equal.
- Dealing with traumatic situations. Imagine interpreting for or translating content related to survivors of human trafficking, children’s protective services, or gruesome legal proceedings. Language professionals must understand the trauma that the person went through to properly gauge and adapt to their word selection and reactions – trauma tends to alter behaviors. Interpreters must also be comfortable discussing difficult topics and asking invasive questions. Dealing with people who experienced trauma or trauma-related content can trigger mental stress, which may result in physical fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and cognitive weariness. To compound the problem, language workers may have little or no warning when required to say things on behalf of others that they are uncomfortable with.
- Coping with vicarious trauma. When facing trauma experienced by others, interpreters can be affected. In a 2016 study, Emma Darroch and Raymond Dempsey showed that 67% of interpreters couldn’t stop thinking about their clients’ troubles – 56% up to half an hour after sessions and 23% from several hours up to days after sessions. Interpreters may not be able to jump into their next assignment after undergoing an intense session but may still feel compelled to do so to make ends meet or because someone needs their help. This stress can lead to vicarious trauma, burnout, compassion fatigue, and a drop in interpreting performance.
- Juggling cognitive load. The human brain can only process so many words per minute. Advances in machine translation have managed to boost the productivity of translators. However, it comes at a cost rarely discussed in the language industry: The need to process more words per minute can leave translators drained and unable to work as many hours as they could with traditional translation processes. Likewise interpreting platforms with lots of real-time resources for linguists can help increase on-the-spot accuracy but add to the interpreting cognitive load. Results include mental fatigue, a drop in editing performance, and performance anxiety.
- Working in disruptive conditions. In a survey we conducted at the start of the pandemic, 36% of conference interpreters felt more anxious about working remotely. Many also experienced more fatigue, headaches, and even hearing issues. Juggling family responsibilities and working in home environments never intended for such tasks, all while losing many of the perks they had before, could easily demoralize these highly skilled individuals. Likewise, the need to learn new technologies on short notice can add stress to translators.
- Keeping up with the pace. Project managers juggle an ever-increasing number of projects. Demanding clients with unrealistic requests can add untenable pressure. Internal performance metrics can add the pressure to deliver what teams may feel is subpar work. All this can lead to high stress, burnout, and higher staff turnover.
A Trailblazer’s Approach to Dealing with Trauma in the Language Industry
To research mental health issues, we interviewed Ludmila Golovine, President and CEO of MasterWord Services, an LSP headquartered in Texas (#41 on our list). MasterWord recently went through all the required steps to be recognized as a “vicarious trauma-informed organization.”
For Golovine, it’s important to become aware of work-induced trauma and prepare a plan for how to respond to it. She explained why: “The topic is dear to my heart because I was personally affected by vicarious trauma when I was working as an interpreter. Back then, I felt all alone dealing with the issue.” Her goal is to remove the stigma associated with mental health and offer practical tools so both staff and freelancers can better cope with trauma.
While the certification already exists, it was designed for health, counseling, and education organizations and it isn’t ready out-of-the-box to be applied to language service providers. MasterWord is currently awaiting an exemption on irrelevant clauses to obtain the actual paperwork. But Golovine shared with us what it took to prepare for this transformation, which she said radically changed the company’s DNA.
Ludmila Golovine presenting at a CHIA conference on trauma-informed interpreting (Source: MasterWord)
She reported that the change starts at the top with commitment from the leadership team. After that, it’s a question of changing practices, policies, and the culture of the entire organization. MasterWord’s approach involves providing free access to training tools and counseling and providing perks such as flex time and Zen meditation sessions. The process also involves regular surveys with staff and vendors and a quarterly review of results.
Concretely, it means they trained their internal team and freelance interpreters on what to do before, during, and after a session. And any staff member or interpreter can say they are not mentally or emotionally OK after an assignment. They are not judged negatively for it. Instead, they are provided tools and support to help them cope.
When we asked about the cost of the process, Golovine indicated it was significant and all self-funded. But she also said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way – the topic is too important to dismiss it.”
What we can learn from MasterWord’s story is the importance of not hiding from tough conversations. The only way to make progress toward resolving them is to become aware of the depth of the issues and to develop plans to mitigate negative consequences. The language industry is not exempt from work-induced mental health issues.
Governmental organizations and enterprises should probe their providers on what they do to manage the mental health impact of their work. Due to the effort required for an LSP to implement a strategy like that of MasterWord, it requires a significant change in mentality. Aside from a few individuals with a personal commitment like Golovine, LSPs will otherwise only implement trauma mitigation processes if buyers specifically ask for them.
LSPs should invest in the well-being of their staff and vendors. Because Golovine would like to see more LSPs follow in her footsteps, she is letting any LSP use her vicarious trauma training programs and tools for language professionals at no cost. Is the transformation worth it? Admittedly, Golovine found the results hard to tie directly to the investment. But her fill rates on tough interpreting assignments for languages of limited diffusion – which are typically hard to place – seem to indicate above-average performance, which helps the company strengthen its differentiation. This is a noteworthy benefit on its own.
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