Vicarious Trauma

Diane McGeachy

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist
Hobart, Tasmania

Vicarious trauma is the impact from repeated, indirect exposure to other people’s trauma combined with feeling a responsibility, care and commitment to support the individual seeking help. Professionals working in roles that support others who have histories of trauma can begin to have similar feelings to the survivor of the trauma. The way of viewing the world can become altered and clouded with a lack of interest, cynicism and negativity as result of hearing about traumatic experiences for prolonged periods of time. Vicarious trauma accumulates over time, the more a person is exposed to traumatic material, the higher the risk of developing vicarious trauma.

Secondary traumatic stress is often used interchangeably with vicarious trauma; however, it is different. While vicarious trauma develops over time, secondary traumatic stress can have a sudden and unexpected onset. It can result in the person developing posttraumatic stress disorder-like symptoms without having being involved in, or witnessing the traumatic event.

Some professions/roles with high rates of vicarious trauma and/or secondary traumatic stress

  • Medical professionals
  • Mental health professionals
  • Law enforcement professionals
  • Emergency services
  • Australian Defense Force Personnel
  • Legal professionals
  • Family services (including child protection/child safety workers)
  • Foster Carers
  • Support workers (i.e. working in Residential Care or Disability Support Services)

Burnout can affect people working in all industries, however there is a particular high rate of burnout for those working in helping professions. Burnout is categorised as having three key features; exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. These features emerge overtime, in response to chronic and prolonged work-related stress. Professionals can begin to experience ongoing fatigue and exhaustion, regardless of whether they have had ample time off. They may also begin to feel cynical about their work and the world, and feel hopeless about having any positive impact on the people they are supporting. Reduced work performance is common and it can become noticeably harder to adapt to workplace and organisational changes.

Compassion fatigue occurs when a person becomes emotionally and physically exhausted as a result of working with those who are experiencing severe emotional distress as a result of trauma. It becomes harder to feel empathy for others and the professional may find themselves feeling impatient, frustrated and angry towards their client(s). Compassion fatigue can occur in relation to one specific client or case, or it can be an accumulation effect from working with particular client groups.

Signs of Vicarious Trauma, Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

  • Experiencing anxiety and/or depression
  • Having intrusive thoughts
  • Difficulty sleeping (or not feeling rested after a night’s sleep)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Ongoing sadness
  • Feelings of anger and irritability
  • Poor concentration
  • Doubting yourself and your competence
  • Feeling detached when hearing information with distressing content from clients or colleagues
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Physical illness, migraines or chronic headaches
  • Increased absenteeism from work
  • Dreading work in general
  • Isolating yourself and withdrawing from contact with colleagues
  • Dreading seeing particular clients
  • Reduced productivity at work

Aspects that Contribute to a Healthy Workplace

A healthy functioning and supportive workplace begins from the top down. Some of the essential aspects from an organisational responsibility include clear protocols and policies for staff (including risk and safety management). Clear boundaries held by staff in leadership roles assist in enabling workers to experience safety and containment from within their workplace. Having a dual emphasis on providing a quality service, whilst also supporting staff with ways of looking after their own health and wellbeing is a strong indicator of a healthy workplace.

Supportive workplaces are fair and move away from black and white thinking or “one size fits all” attitudes. Leadership is equipped and willing to demonstrate flexibility in relation to staff needs. This could include versatility in office-based work, working from home or a combination. There is flexibility for staff to have reduced working hours and awareness that workers have different needs in relation to their productivity levels. Some staff are most productive over a full-time work week, whereas others can be more productive working reduced hours, over a shorter period of time.

Good management takes the time to invest in understanding what motivates and drives their individual staff. People thrive when they feel appreciated and when their efforts and skills are acknowledged. Genuine compliments, rewards, bonuses, raises, promotions, and opportunities for professional development are some ways to motivate staff and show they are appreciated. A healthy workplace provides quality support, supervision and clinical guidance to their workers in a timely fashion. In healthy environments individuals are not afraid to have differences and respect one another regardless of different views. There is an overall sense of belonging and care towards one another and the team as whole.

Keys to a Healthy Workplace

  • Positive and ethical values
  • Relaxed and productive environment
  • Commitment to quality
  • Open and honest communication
  • Strong Teams and belonging
  • Playfulness
  • Respect and desire to understand
  • Flexibility
  • Acknowledgement and validation
  • Emphasises health and work/family balance
  • Environmentally aware

Red flags:

  • An environment that allows bullying, harassment and backstabbing.
  • Excessive talk from leadership about how the organisation supports their staff, but lacks follow through.
  • A workplace culture that turns a blind eye to poor work/life boundaries or in extreme cases has an expectation their staff will overextend themselves beyond normal working hours.
  • Inadequate clinical supervision.
  • High rates of staff turnover and/or high percentage of staff taking sick leave.
  • An environment that does not value or prioritise staff upskilling or provide opportunities for advancement.
  • Fragmentation amongst the team is often an indicator of poor leadership.
  • A disorganised environment that is constantly behind in meeting deadlines for consumers or funding bodies which then puts pressure on staff to overextend themselves.

Ways to Care for Yourself

  • Focus on the basics; sleep, eat and exercise.
  • Establish a regular sleep and exercise routine.
  • Find ways of disconnecting from work once you clock off (i.e. use your drive home as a transition time to let go of your thoughts about work by listening to music, playing an audiobook, speaking to loved ones or using silence to ground yourself).
  • Forms of relaxation such as yoga, walking in nature, gardening or playing with a pet can assist you to disconnect from work.
  • Consider taking some time off and away from work, if needed.
  • Speak to your supervisor or management and find out what ways your organisation can support you (i.e. changing roles, being supported to have more diversity in your current role, having a reduced workload, increased supervision, etc.)
  • Consider accessing external supervision with an experienced clinician.
  • Spend time engaging in hobbies or activities that you enjoy and that are separate from your work.
  • Spend time with people who are accepting, supportive and understanding of the impact your working environment is having on you.

If you are experiencing vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, burnout or compassion fatigue, talking to an experienced therapist or Psychologist can be beneficial. If you would like to book an appointment contact Diane McGeachy.

Diane McGeachy
Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist

Phone: (03) 6285 8592

Hobart Counselling Centre
Level 1,
181 Elizabeth Street Hobart TAS 7000

Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W., & Leiter, M. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397-422.
Regional guidelines for the development of healthy workplaces. World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific November 1999.
Sudden 2019, Supporting the Supporter: Vicarious Trauma and Support Needs Webinar Report, Sudden, viewed 19 May 2020
The Work Foundation (2010). The Business Case for Employees Health and Wellbeing. A report prepared for Investors in People UK.