Debriefing whilst maintaining confidentiality

Sally-Anne Watson Kane . Wednesday, March 29, 2017 . Comments
Debriefing whilst maintaining confidentiality

Business owner/operators, freelancers, managers and many different types of employees often have access to clients' personal information. They might know other people's banking or health details, their stories or intellectual property.

Maintaining confidentiality

If you're working in a position where you've got access to your clients' private information it's essential to maintain confidentiality in regard to your clients and all the material they have provided to you or that you've produced for them.

You can maintain confidentiality by:

  • conducting all your work either in a secure, private office or in the client's office
  • permanently deleting files - including emails attaching those files - within six months of completing the booking (or sooner upon request), and shredding any hardcopy documents involved
  • when you  use the internet for receiving and sending files via email and forwarding or file sharing sites, don't leave confidential information sitting around on the  internet
  • requiring everyone who works for your business to sign a Confidentiality Agreement 
  • if you're a small business, you can opt in to be covered by Australia's Privacy Laws
  • ensuring all your staff/contractors live in Australia
  • ensuring your staff/contractors have extensive experience working with highly confidential material, and referees have verified that they always maintain confidentiality
  • treating all information in regard to bookings as confidential and not disclosing it outside the team.

Working with disturbing information

A lot of people work with sensitive or disturbing subject matter as part of their work: police officers, child protection workers, doctors and teachers just to name a few. Others don't have to deal with people face to face but they also have to sometimes work with this sort of material: for example, over the years, through my scribing and editing roles I've needed to work very closely with transcripts and publications about domestic violence, suicide, accidents, mental illness, rape and viewpoints that are difficult to fathom. Over time, I have become better at editing or scribing those occasional difficult jobs that have to be done - I am better at managing my emotions as I've matured - but to be honest, it's still not easy.

We are all different. Some transcriptionists - and editors, and scribes - keep themselves aloof from the subject matter; or after working with disturbing material for years they've got used to it and it no longer affects them.

When I'm transcribing or editing I allow myself to identify with the speaker or writer of that story or testimony, to some extent. I believe by stepping into the heart of the subject matter I learn more and do a better job and, importantly, am giving the speaker or writer and their story the respect that's due. It's easy to do this when the subject matter is okay.

But when I'm working with subject where the subject matter is really disturbing, I sometimes get to the point where I have to put down my tools (my hands, that is) and walk away - to have a cuppa, or go outside for a bit, or even have a small cry. Then, after a break, I'm able to sit down again at the computer again and keep going.

Debriefing about confidential information

Everyone needs to debrief sometimes, especially when they've been working with disturbing subject matter, but they need to do so without breaching confidentiality. If you're working with a team you can debrief with your supervisor or (if you are sure it's appropriate) a team member, whereas if you're working alone there's usually nobody suitable with whom to debrief.

As leader of a team where I often delegate transcription work to our transcriptionists and if I think the subject matter recordings may be disturbing, I remind the team that if the subject matter is upsetting to them, 1) they should let me know so I can delegate that work to someone else on the team or do those transcripts myself, or 2)if they still want to do it, they should let me know so we can have a debrief session during or after that work, and 3) no matter how upsetting the material, they must not disclose any information to anyone apart from me because if they were to do so they'd be breaching confidentiality and their Confidentiality Agreement with On Time Typing.

Debriefing within a team

When you're working in a large team, you must not divulge confidential information to anyone unless they are authorised to know that information. For example, you wouldn't talk about confidential information to a staff member working on a different project but it might be okay to talk about it to a team member who's involved in the same project (if they need to know the information).

We all know the dangers of bottling up your emotions. If you're uncomfortable or upset by the information you've been dealing with you should always debrief with the most appropriate person. The best person to talk to about confidential information is generally your direct supervisor.

Debriefing when you work alone

People who work alone - e.g. freelancers, sole traders - have the same challenges as people who work in teams in regard to working with confidential information, but if you work alone you generally won't have anyone appropriate to debrief with.

If you're in this situation and feeling emotional or upset about the confidential material with which you're working:

  • take regular breaks from working with the difficult subject matter and when you take those breaks, make sure you properly relax
  • juggle the job with a different job or task, or even other non-work related tasks, to give yourself a break
  • learn to 'switch off' from work no matter how disturbing the subject matter; use yoga, meditation or exercise to relax
  • write about your emotions and thoughts in a personal journal; this can be a great way of debriefing to the most confidential person in the world - yourself. However, in doing so you must not write down any details to ensure what you're writing is 'de-identified'; you shouldn't relate the information at all but, rather, how you feel, your thoughts, why that subject is difficult for you to cope with and what you think you can learn from working with the subject
  • Worst case scenario: if you find yourself thinking and worrying about the subject matter outside work - e.g. dreaming about it, or waking up thinking about it - you're not maintaining good mental health and should consider advising the client that you can't continue with the work, or if you employ contractors delegating that work to someone else.

The importance of work-life balance

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is especially important when you're working with subject matter that's disturbing but which you can't talk about because it's confidential. One aspect of having a healthy balance is leaving work at work where it belongs. I've published some articles about how to maintain a healthy work-life balance in this chapter of my blog:  Work life balance when working from home

On Time Typing maintains confidentiality in regard to other people's private information. We respect all clients' right to privacy. We are also legally required to maintain confidentiality because we have opted in (voluntarily) to be covered by Australia's Privacy Laws. For more information see: Blog: Confidentiality and Australia's Privacy Act.

My understanding of how to debrief whilst maintaining confidentiality is based on 15 years' experience scribing and editing reports, minutes of meetings and publications; transcribing recorded interviews and investigations; and managing a team of transcriptionists and editors.

Copyright Sally-Anne Watson Kane, On Time Typing. Please seek my permission prior to reproducing this article in any way but feel free to link directly to this page if you wish to use this content - thanks!


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