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What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a negative mental health outcome on human service professionals includes compassion fatigue, which is made up of burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress (STS) symptoms occur when an empathetic helper is exposed to another person’s trauma. Personal symptoms mimic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress

Secondary traumatic stress can occur in those who are new to trauma and mental health work, don’t get enough training, or have past traumas that have not been worked through. Secondary traumatic stress and posttraumatic stress disorder have overlapping characteristics that are similar to vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is a psychological response that is associated with the disturbing experiences and traumatic events of another person, often victims or crime or abuse. The condition describes the indirect trauma or the result of identifying with a trauma survivor’s suffering.

Occupational exposure

I define trauma as when a person experiences an extremely stressful loss event or a repeated loss event that strongly affects their ability to cope. Occupational exposure to a person’s traumatic material can bring about a psychological response. An empathetic and engaged professional can embody a trauma survivor’s traumatic experience.

Although health and mental health practitioners can experience compassion satisfaction and vicarious post traumatic growth, they can also experience vicarious traumatization. This can happen while listening to a detailed narrative of people who have experienced trauma, ongoing exposure to the re-telling of traumatized events, or responding to a traumatic event. An actual shift in intrapersonal processes occurs when addressing traumatization that is work-related.

vicarious traumatizationTraumatized by work-related exposure

Work-related trauma exposure is a potentially distressing situation for a human services worker who is confronted with highly complex topics (e.g. suicidality, physical abuse, sexual assault, mass violence). Those at a high risk for vicarious traumatization include clinicians researchers and educators, those who work in first responder agencies, law enforcement, fire services, child protective services, victim services, the courts, school systems, and mental health.

When a professional helper experiences secondary trauma, they experience changes in their world view, their role, and their perception of self. A sense of self gives them purpose in life when working in trauma-based services. They view their world based on how they grew up, and what they learned in life. When their sense of self deeply changes, their values and personal identify change with it. They become vicariously traumatized.

Recognize vicarious traumatization symptoms

Symptoms of vicarious traumatization include anxiety, anger, feeling isolated, depressed, unsafe, hopelessness, numbness, irritability, emotionally numb, losing control, not trusting others, powerless, fear, worried about a loved one’s safety, more sensitive to violence, being cynical, inattention, easily distracted, intrusive imagery, overwhelming negative changes in looking at one’s world, becoming forgetful about important details, loss of appetite, fatigue, risky behavior, can’t separate personal life from professional life, addictive behaviors, not wanting to talk with others about work, becoming aggressive, trouble with workplace boundaries, headaches, heartburn, loss of hope, and loss of meaning in life.

Mental health mind map

Employers can help build resiliency

Being that organizational factors influence psycho-social well-being, employers can mitigate the impact of traumatic stress before it wears away at an employee’s motivation to stay in their job. To build workforce resiliency, an employee retention strategy should focus fostering resilience and trauma treatment to prevent employee turnover and negative work environments. To function at maximum capacity when dealing with second-hand trauma, employers need to stress trauma training and self-care, and help employees develop coping mechanisms.

Employers can be proactive as they provide professional support and professional development, and a vicarious trauma toolkit. The organizational culture needs to focus on an approach to help employees, whether that is giving them additional resources and training, or educating them within the workplace about effective self-care.

Improving a workplace environment

To improve the workplace environment and stress organizational goals that focus on employee self-care, supervisors need to do the following: during orientation supply material about compassion fatigue and burnout, including a list of factors that contribute to distress in professionals who work with complex trauma survivors; pair a new employee with a mentor who has been on the job for a while; create a workplace culture that stresses shared norms around self-care; allow employees flexible working arrangements whether a compressed work week or flextime; and express an understanding of what a day is like working with those who are traumatized and how hard that is.

Employers can tell workers that they understand self-sacrifice and their guilty feelings of not working when they are at home; never allow those who work with trauma survivors to sacrifice their own well-being and self-care for that of those they support; provide trauma-informed care; give them permission to take care of themselves; show appreciation by offering occasional perks; connect with each employee on a regular basis; don’t wait for an annual review to discuss resilience and recovery; offer professional development on trauma and mental health management; and help employees be cognitively aware of the impact of vicarious trauma.

Prevent compassion fatigue

Supervision, training in emotional labor, and a team climate mitigate the impact of secondary trauma. To prevent compassion fatigue and burnout and increase job satisfaction, service providers need to practice self-care, which is a vital strategy to minimize the risk of vicarious trauma and build resilience. Employers need to motivate employees to focus on self-care to mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma and posttraumatic stress.

traumatic stressThe right motivational keynote speaker understands how to put things in the proper perspective while enlightening professionals about new and inventive ways to foster resilience. Barbara offers the skills necessary to deal with selfcare issues for clinicians and how to develop a self-care plan. Being a keynote speaker on traumatic-bereavement-informed care, addressing vicarious traumatization, and mental well-being, means more than simply firing up a group of people about fostering resilience. It is about recognizing how aversive details of a client’s traumatic experiences has a long-lasting impact on a professional’s personal beliefs and world view.

Incorporate health training

Contact Barbara today to learn more about burnout, secondary traumatic stress, resilience and recovery, compassion fatigue, and vicarious traumatization and incorporate trauma training in your program curricula.