Vicarious trauma & burnout
Vicarious trauma & burnout
Working with people who have experienced and/or perpetrated family violence can be rewarding, but it is also challenging. In Victoria, we are working on the issue of family violence at an unprecedented rate and the demands on specialist family violence practitioners are particularly high.
Impacts of responding to family violence
It’s important to be aware of how responding to family violence may have an effect on you. Three common impacts are vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress and burnout.
Vicarious trauma is the experience of trauma symptoms that can result from being repeatedly exposed to other people’s trauma and their stories of traumatic events. A person’s world view (belief systems) can be significantly changed as a result of hearing those stories. Vicarious trauma is cumulative, building up over time.
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Burnout is the prolonged physical and psychological exhaustion related to a person’s work. It does not include traumatic elements or PTSD-like symptoms.
While it can be helpful to have an understanding of what these terms mean, it’s also important to know that not everybody will identify these as distinct experiences. For example, you may find that you experience a little bit of each of these at different times. What can be most helpful is to have an understanding of the impacts so that you and your workplace can be proactive in preventing or minimising these impacts.
Recognising the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma
This is not an exhaustive list but it covers some of the common signs of vicarious trauma:
- Invasive thoughts of client’s situation/distress
- Disturbed sleep/nightmares/racing thoughts
- Problems managing personal boundaries
- Taking on too great a sense of responsibility or feeling you need to overstep the boundaries of your role
- Difficulty leaving work at the end of the day/noticing you can never leave on time
- Loss of connection with self and others/loss of a sense of own identity
- Increased time alone/a sense of needing to withdraw from others
- Increased need to control events/outcomes/others
- Loss of pleasure in daily activities
The effects of vicarious trauma vary from person to person. For some people, there may be a wide range of signs and symptoms, while others may experience problems in one particular area of their lives.
Recognising the signs and symptoms of burnout
This is not an exhaustive list but it covers some of the common signs of burnout:
- Physical and emotional stress
- Low job satisfaction
- Feeling frustrated by or judgmental of clients
- Feeling under pressure, powerless and overwhelmed
- Not taking breaks, eating on the run
- Unable to properly refuel and regenerate
- Frequent sick days or “mental health days”
- Irritability and anger
How to protect yourself
If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to recognise that this is not a reflection on your professional abilities but a normal response to the challenging nature of this work.
Some tips for managing symptoms:
- Reach out to someone. This could be your manager, a trusted friend or colleague, a counsellor or another support person. You could also access your employee assistance program (EAP), if you have one. For after-hours support, the 1800RESPECT telephone and online counselling services are available 24 hours a day for professionals to discuss the personal impact of working with people who have experienced violence.
- Find a way to escape physically and/or mentally e.g. reading, days off, holidays. walks, seeing friends
- Rest – have some time with no goals e.g. taking naps, watching clouds, lying on the beach
- Play – have fun and do things that make you laugh e.g. playing with children and pets, creative activities, watching a favourite comedy
A note on self-compassion: If you are working to help people and end up being witness to stories of abuse and violence, it’s good to remember that an emotional response is also a human one. While it’s important to maintain professional composure with your clients, emotional responses related to abuse and violence are natural and even appropriate. Staying in contact with how you feel and having self-compassion will help you to be resilient and sustain your work.
To help prevent the symptoms of vicarious trauma and burnout from escalating or happening in the first place:
- Utilise your team and managers for regular debriefing and other support
- Find out if you have access to an employee assistance program (known as EAP) to access in times of need
- Engage in reflective practice. This can be one-on-one with a trusted friend or your manager, counsellor or other support person (sometimes called ‘supervision’); with colleagues; or on your own e.g. by writing in a journal
- Honour your scheduled breaks and annual leave
- Evaluate your work space to ensure it is conducive to wellbeing – enough space for you and your colleagues to have lunch together, ‘chill-out’ spaces, lots of plants/flowers/colour/light.
- Be kind and supportive to your co-workers and make sure to celebrate achievements and birthdays to take time out