Work-induced stress and vicarious trauma
Recognising work-induced stress
- Work that involves supporting people through difficult times can be highly rewarding — it can also be challenging
- It’s not uncommon for people in human services and community support roles to experience their own stress when helping other people in their recovery from personal trauma
- The content in this section looks at the signs of work-induced stress and vicarious trauma and offers some tools to prevent and respond to it.
What is work-induced stress and vicarious trauma?
Exposing yourself to another person's traumatic experiences can bring about personal changes, including to your psychological, physical and spiritual wellbeing. It can also affect how you see yourself as well as your relationships with other people. This process of change happens over time and you may not even notice that it is taking place.
Sometimes the effects can be negative, but it’s important to remember that they can be very positive too. Helping people can result in personal growth, a greater connection with other people and personal satisfaction that comes from doing meaningful work.
Who can be affected by work induced stress and vicarious trauma?
Supporting people who have experienced trauma requires empathy and compassion. Hearing peoples’ lived experiences of trauma and supporting them in their recovery can create a feeling of great responsibility, and can prompt stress-based reactions during times of high workload or when feeling overwhelmed. Exposure to the lived experience of trauma over a period of time can also prompt negative responses in the support person’s personal wellbeing if self-care and support strategies have not been prioritised for the individual, or due to a number of professional and personal factors influencing their resilience at the time.
The effects of work-induced stress and trauma can also vary from person to person. Some people experience 'burnout' or ‘compassion fatigue’ which may express itself as negativity or disinterest towards clients, or exhaustion.
When the symptoms become more severe, it turns into 'vicarious trauma', which can produce nightmares, sleep problems, depression, fearfulness and complete withdrawal, similar to post traumatic stress reactions. If these things are not addressed, they can take have serious effects, both at work and in your personal life.
While work-induced stress and vicarious trauma are more likely to happen to people who are often exposed to traumatic situations as part of their job, it can happen to anyone. You don’t need to work with people experiencing violence for it to affect you. If your work involves reading or writing about violence, hearing details of violence or working in a job where people share details of personal experiences, this can also impact on your wellbeing.
By understanding work-induced vicarious trauma, taking steps to prevent it and reaching out for help if you think you are affected, you can enjoy a healthy and satisfying work-life. Paying attention to your own needs can help you achieve balance as you meet the demands of work that is valuable to the community.
There are a number of factors that can increase the risk of work-induced trauma. Some of them are personal, while others relate to the situation or work setting. This list was developed by the Headington Institute.
Personal factors include:
- Personality and coping styles – people who tend to avoid difficult emotions or situations or tend to see problems as overwhelming and unfixable may be at greater risk
- Personal history – past experience of similar trauma may increase risk for some people
- Current life circumstances – stresses in other aspects of life can add to the overall stress someone is experiencing
- Social support – people who enjoy a strong social network tend to be more resilient to stress than people who are socially isolated
- Work style – having unrealistic expectations of performance or difficulty in setting boundaries between work and other aspects of life can increase risk
- Spiritual resources – some people find connection with a higher source of meaning can improve their resilience to stressful situations
Workplace factors include:
- Increased time spent listening to traumatic information from clients who are being supported
- Level of responsibility – this can be made worse where workers feel unable or insufficiently resourced to really help
- Inadequate supervision and support structures – examples include lack of opportunities to speak out, inability to influence decisions made by more senior work colleagues, inadequate time off, lack of supportive workplace culture
- Inadequate time to debrief between clients
- Challenging work conditions – examples include remote locations; restricted access to recreation, exercise or social supports; frequent travel; long hours
- Competing demands – examples include from budgets, KPI’s, client, funders and own family
By understanding the signs of work-induced vicarious trauma, you can take action before it becomes a serious problem. This means you can manage your own health and wellbeing. It also helps you to look out for work colleagues who may be having problems and need assistance.
Signs of work-induced vicarious trauma include:
- Overly negative world view: hopelessness, cynicism, loss of meaning in life
- Physical signs: poor sleep, aches, pains, illnesses, accidents
- Psychological signs: fear, distrust, numbness, feeling vulnerable, intrusive distressing thoughts, oversensitivity to strong emotion or aggression
- Relationship problems: conflict, withdrawal, disconnection, sexual problems
- Behavioural issues: difficulty separating work and home, impulsiveness, dependence on cigarettes, alcohol, food, sex, shopping, internet
- Work-related signs: taking on too much, poor decisions, blaming others, unplanned leave, not meeting commitments, negativity
The effects of work-induced stress and vicarious trauma vary from person to person. For some people, there may be a wide range of signs. Others may experience problems in one particular area of their life, for example as physical reactions or problems affecting their relationships. Some people may experience milder symptoms in the form of 'burnout' or ‘compassion fatigue’. It’s important to not ignore any of these signs of stress and to speak to your manager or a health professional if they are impacting on your work or personal life.
The work-induced trauma checklist contains more signs to be aware of.
The 1800RESPECT telephone and online counselling service is available for workers and professionals. You can discuss the personal impact of working with people who have been impacted by trauma with trained counsellors. Whether you want to debrief after a particular incident or talk about the long-term effects of vicarious trauma on your work or personal life, you can contact us on 1800 737 732 or through online. Both services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It is important to remember that stress and vicarious trauma are not permanent, and can be overcome with the right supports. Even more importantly, vicarious trauma is not something guaranteed as something that practitioners in the support industries will all eventually experience.
Vicarious growth and professional and personal development opportunities due to exposure to working with people impacted by trauma is something that many professionals, with support structures in place and strong self-care, can just as likely (if not more often than not) experience.
Further information and resources
What is vicarious or work-induced trauma? This video introduces what we know about vicarious trauma and its possible effects on work and personal life. It also offers some techniques for addressing work-induced stress and trauma.
Stress, trauma and work: How to look after yourself
What is vicarious or work-induced vicarious trauma? This video introduces what we know about vicarious trauma and its possible effects on work and personal life. It also offers some techniques for addressing work-induced stress and vicarious trauma.