How to address vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout in your workplace

how to address vicarious trauma compassion fatigue and burnout in your workplace

Vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout present risks for workers of all types exposed directly and indirectly to traumatic content.

But the impacts can affect both individuals and also entire workplaces – with outcomes such as poor mental health, reduced productivity, increased absenteeism and high staff turnover.

Tara Hunter is the Director of Clinical and Client Services at Full Stop Australia (formerly Rape and Domestic Violence Services). Tara has Masters qualifications in Social Work, with additional qualifications in Workplace Training and Assessment and Family Dispute Resolution.

In the lead-up to her presentation on the topic at the 2023 Not-For-Profit People Conference, Tara spoke with us about how to address vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout in NFP workplaces.

You have many years of experience as a clinician supporting clients affected by trauma. What is vicarious trauma and what sort of risks do clinicians face from vicarious trauma? 

Vicarious trauma is basically what can happen to workers who are exposed to their clients’ trauma. So you basically experience the same kind of impacts that someone might have when they’ve been exposed to trauma. 

Laurie Anne Pearlman, who first identified the notion of vicarious trauma, talks about it happening in the empathic relationship with clients and it’s frequently mentioned in the context of counsellors and mental health workers. 

However it doesn’t necessarily have to be only that relationship. What we know about vicarious trauma is the biggest risk factor is being exposed to traumatic content. First responders witnessing a traumatic event could experience it too, for example.  

So in the context of being a counsellor, if I am listening to someone else’s story of trauma, then what can happen for me is that I can actually start having impacts on my own psychological well-being.

The way in which I might hear a news story or someone telling me something that’s happened to them means that I’ve got all these other people’s experiences of trauma that might be impacting on how I process the story.

What we do know is that you draw a lot of strength and a lot of hope when you hear survivor stories – in particular, how they have the capacity to respond and get up the next day and keep going.

What is the single most impactful thing NFP organisations can do to support staff impacted by trauma?

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that exposure to other people’s trauma is a psychological risk for the workplace. It’s about acknowledging it and actually having a really clear workplace health and safety response to it. 

It’s not a one-size-fits-all, so there needs to be a clear policy around it. We have to work with individuals around some of the impacts, the risks and the vulnerabilities, as well as how that might turn up in the workplace. 

What is the most important professional skill for those who are managing people in frontline, trauma-exposed roles?

I’ve been a manager in a number of services where you’re working with trauma and it’s actually about empathy. We talk about that as one of the really strong counselling skills. 

Really being able to sit back and engage and hear some of the difficult stories or experiences of people. Being able to listen without judgement

What do you wish you’d known when you first managed front-line practitioners?

I have learned along the way to encourage staff to make self-care and well-being a priority. It’s part of your professional requirement, it’s part of your job. 

It’s hard when you see people who have a lot of potential who are burnt out and leaving and what they love. So I think it’s about saying to staff: if this is what you love, if this is your career choice, then part of your career pathway is about how you sustain your well-being.

If you’re not faring well then seek support. We all know that people in the caring professions are often really good at neglecting their own wellbeing.

Can you tell us about what compassion fatigue is and how you can spot it in a staff member or volunteers?

That is the hard bit about burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma: they often can present with the same indicators. If you’ve got a staff member with low motivation and high levels of absenteeism, that might be just compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is different to burnout – people in any industry can be burnt out. Compassion fatigue is about the volume of the work, not necessarily about the nature of the work. It’s really about not being able to engage with people’s distress or stories, or not being able to help them. 

It’s sometimes called the cost of caring and it’s where people think “I cannot hear another story. I just can’t.”

What’s the top thing you look for when you’re recruiting staff to work with clients affected by trauma?

I find it hard to say the top thing because usually it’s a combination of things. So obviously prior experience and any interest in our space [sexual, domestic or family violence]. 

We do ask about self-care and how candidates look after themselves and how they use things like supervision.

We also look for people who are reflective and willing to learn. And obviously people who have a passion, I think that often is what counters the burnout and compassion fatigue.

Finally, we ask every single person who is employed by our organisation what their understanding is of the causes of sexual, domestic and family violence and what their understanding of intersectional feminism is. 

Answers to those questions are really strong indicators of their values, and it can be very interesting and insightful to get those responses. 

And finally: What’s your top tip for practising self care?

The first thing to say is that it’s individual. So often we think we should go and have a massage or do XYZ, but it’s actually thinking: what are the things that I enjoy, but are also sustainable?

It needs to be a routine, so that it’s preventative.

Some examples I can give are: having a good network of peers that you can draw upon; having a safe environment where you can debrief; ensuring that your external network is not just about work; and actually sectioning off time & consciously having a clear separation between work and non-work time.

Finally, if you are struggling you need to put your hand up and say ‘I’m finding this work really difficult.’

Thanks so much for speaking with us Tara! 

Want to ask Tara about the staff wellbeing questions that are challenging your organisation? Ask her in person at the 2023 Not-For-Profit People Conference on 20 and 21 February, where she’ll be presenting on this topic.

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