Debriefing and confidentiality, when working with sensitive or explicit material

Maintaining confidentiality

If you’re working in a position where you’ve got access to your clients’ private information (such as their life stories or researched information), it’s essential to maintain confidentiality in regard to your clients and all their information. For more about this, go to: How to maintain confidentiality.

Working with sensitive or explicit material

A lot of people work with sensitive or explicit (violent or sexual) subject matter as part of their work; for example, police officers, child protection workers, doctors and teachers. Many jobs involve indirectly working with this subject matter; e.g. through my editing role I’ve worked on publications, poetry and stories about domestic violence, war experiences, suicide, accidents, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses or conditions, and other subjects that are disturbing.

Whether I’m producing transcripts of oral histories or interviews, or producing a self-published book of someone’s life story, I allow myself to become quite engrossed in what the speaker or writer is saying, while I listen and type. This highly concentrated listening allows me to accurately transcribe what they are saying, or edit what they have said to get their message across to their audience. Then, if I’m editing and compiling their stories into a book, I almost have to ‘become them’ to make sure their voice, not mine, is heard strongly through their words and stories.

As long as I take plenty of breaks, I am usually fairly good at handling sensitive or explicit  information. But it’s also true that at times I have felt the impact of vicarious trauma which has affected not only my work but also my life. Debriefing with someone – whether that be a professional, a mentor, a manager or a colleague – can help you deal with vicarious trauma.


We all need to debrief at times, especially when working with sensitive or explicit subject matter. But we still need to maintain confidentiality.

If you’re working with a team you can usually debrief with your supervisor or (if appropriate) a team member. But if you’re a sole trader or freelancer, you’re usually working alone and you may not know a suitable person with whom it’s appropriate to debrief.

Debriefing within a team

When you’re working in a large team, you shouldn’t divulge confidential information to anyone unless they are authorised to access that information. For example, you wouldn’t share confidential information with a staff member working on a different project. However, you may share the information with the team leader or project manager who is your supervisor. Or even a supervisor or manager further up the line, whether or not they are involved in that project. 

If you’re uncomfortable or upset by the explicit or sensitive information you’ve been dealing with you should always debrief with the most appropriate person, who is generally your direct supervisor or team leader.

Debriefing when you work alone (e.g. freelance editor)

Freelancers and sole traders (e.g. editors, writers, scribes) usually work alone. So when they discover they are feeling uncomfortable or upset about the material they are editing or transcribing (vicarious trauma), they often don’t have a boss or anyone else to whom they can debrief. Because they don’t work as part of a ‘team’, and there is no one ‘above’ them except for their client.

If you work alone (are your own ‘boss’) and think you need to debrief about the work you have been doing, please note:

  • It is inappropriate to debrief with a client to help you deal with the sensitive or explicit content of the material the client has written or spoken
  • The person you should choose to be your ‘ear’, who you can safely debrief to, will need to be somebody you can talk to without breaching confidentiality
  • Whether  you need to debrief with a colleague or a professional person will depend on how uncomfortable or upset you are feeling (i.e. the extent of the vicarious trauma you are feeling).

If you work alone and are working with sensitive or explicit subject matter, you can try these tips for looking after your mental health, during and after working with the material:  Rules for managing vicarious trauma. (These tips include debriefing with an appropriate person.)

How we debrief at On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading

On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading has a team of scribes and editors (all contractors) who produce transcripts, edit self-published books and reports, and scribe, compile and produce self-published books to printed book stage.

If the subject matter of a recording or a client’s story is potentially disturbing, I advise the people on my team who are working on the project:

  • if they find subject matter difficult to deal with, they can ‘give back’ the task,  and I will complete the task myself
  • if they are finding the subject matter difficult but want to complete the task themselves, they can contact me at any time for a chat about it; and if I feel they need more assistance I’ll refer them to an appropriate professional (either a mentor or counsellor);
  • after they have finished the task, I contact them to give them the opportunity to debrief
  • they must not breach their signed Confidentiality Agreement with On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading. The only people to whom they can disclose information about the material they are working on are myself, a professional counsellor or a professional mentor.

Maintaining balance

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is especially important when you’re working with subject matter that’s sensitive or explicit. One aspect of ensuring your life is  balanced is making sure you leave work at work where it belongs. Read more articles at: Work-life balance.

Note: On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading maintains confidentiality in regard to other people’s private information. 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.

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