As caregivers, we often work in positions where we’re surrounded by people experiencing trauma. Our intention is to help them, of course, and we may even see it as the mission of our job.
But it’s critical we also nurture and do our wellness work to avoid vicarious trauma. When we hold space for others to share their experiences and process their trauma, it can trigger our own experiences and cause us to react (even if we think we’re not “letting it affect us”).
Here’s how those of us in human services can avoid vicarious trauma in our work.
What is Vicarious Trauma?
We hear a lot about burnout these days. People everywhere have experienced an awakening about how much stress and strain we’re willing to take on from our workplace. Many people started feeling it during the start of the Covid pandemic, although it was undoubtedly building in the zeitgeist before that time.
People are tired. Many people recognize that they need to set a work-life balance to leave some emotional reserves for the other parts of their lives. You might have heard of the quiet quitting phenomenon, where people are slowly reducing the amount of emotional effort they put into their jobs while still continuing to go to work.
For others, they’ve learned to get by on less. People all around us seem to be asking themselves, how much do I really need to work to live the life I want? Can I manage to work a little less so I can enjoy my life more?
Of course, this isn’t the reality for everyone. Many people have life circumstances that won’t allow them the privilege of setting these types of work/life boundaries. Even if their burnout and stress are extremely high, they face difficult work daily. They don’t have a choice to quit, quietly or otherwise, and they may face emotionally and physically taxing work with no end in sight.
Similarly, people’s external stressors have seemingly increased over the last several years. As our awareness of injustices in the world, violence, climate disasters, and other traumatic experiences increase, so do our stress levels. Trauma has become part of our daily lives. Although some would acknowledge that trauma has always been there, our awareness of the trauma—both our own and that of our fellow human beings—has increased as we’ve become more aware of the impacts of trauma in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The continuum of human experience and science merged with a return to indigenous wisdom has helped this awareness seep back into our common consciousness.
As human services professionals, it’s a lot to address. Those who work in counseling, mental health, treatment, criminal justice, and education are especially susceptible to vicarious trauma. We see it daily as we hold space for our clients and listen to them recount their traumatic experiences.
Even though society as a whole has come a long way in recognizing trauma, it still falls under the radar for many. As a result, we may acknowledge trauma in others while not realizing the impact on our own emotional wellbeing until we’re already well into the throes of burnout, compassion fatigue, and emotional and physical exhaustion.
Empathy and Trauma
To avoid vicarious trauma, it might seem we would need to avoid empathy. But as those in human services well know, to truly connect with others, to hold space for them, and to build a strong rapport, empathy is crucial. The fact is, the same compassion required of us to do our job makes us vulnerable to vicarious traumatization. We’ve come to realize that we can only be compassionate out as much as we are compassionate in, to ourselves.
Vicarious trauma can manifest itself in many ways. We may hear people refer to this phenomenon as compassion fatigue and burnout. It stems from the same concept—when we’re empathetic and stretching our capacity to hold space and feel for others, we can experience a reduction in our ability to process and find emotional balance in ourselves.
When we listen to our clients as they share their traumatic stories and memories, or even read about them, we can experience trauma-related emotions and thoughts ourselves. This vicarious trauma interferes with our own senses of self-esteem, safety, trust, and disrupts our ability for human connection. It can even interfere with our sense of self, values, and belief systems.
While changing some long-held beliefs is an essential component of personal growth (and can be vital on our path from Cultural Humility to Cultural Reverence), the experience can be stressful. We may find that we need to process some of the vicarious trauma within ourselves to continue offering empathy and presence to those we work with and serve.
Signs of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma can include:
- Sleep disruptions
- Wavering boundaries with clients
- Reactivity and a shorter temper
- Bystander guilt and identifying strongly with clients
- Cynicism, negativity, a change in outlook
- Feeling emotional or tearful
- Procrastination, distraction, and avoidance
As the advice goes, we must put on our own oxygen masks before helping others. In other words, we need to address our needs and replenish our compassion reserves to have more emotional bandwidth to hold space for those around us.
The catch-22 of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue is that when we’re feeling burnout, we may avoid the very activities that offer us a sense of relief. For example, we might feel too exhausted and “spent” to enjoy time with our family, catch up with friends, or workout. On the same note, we might find that we feel guilty when we take breaks or take time for ourselves. There’s so much work to do, and we may worry that we will fail our clients by taking a break.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true. We need to find ways to address the vicarious traumatization and burnout, so we can continue to hold space as caregivers.
Finding Time and Space for Wellness
One way that we can combat the effects of vicarious trauma is through Team Wellness and Wellbeing Circles. We all know that workplace safety and health are common considerations nowadays, but our emotional and mental health is another critical component to avoiding burnout, turnover, and poor job performance.
People “do” better at their jobs when they feel supported and healthy. It doesn’t mean they can’t face stress or challenging situations in their job, but it means that our workplaces should balance the levels of tension by providing a safe space for emotional support.
At Share Collaborative, we often work with organizations and teams to model ways they can provide emotional wellness and hold space for each other. These models help teams build stronger connections, increase rapport, and strengthen employee buy-in in an organization’s mission (because they aren’t feeling the effects of burnout and vicarious trauma as strongly and feel supported!).
One of the techniques for Team Wellness is modeling guided check-in or Wellbeing Circles. These circles create a safe space for team members to share their feelings and support one another. We may base the model around specific goals or challenges an organization faces, such as a move, a sudden influx of clients, return to offices, or a traumatic community event.
Within a wellbeing circle, people can openly and safely share their feelings. We begin sessions with a set of agreements—guidelines and boundaries for the conversation to support everyone’s sense of safety. These parameters provide the necessary structure to allow everyone room to share openly and honestly, to express healthy vulnerability.
Wellbeing circles offer many benefits for organizations, but they’re particularly effective for groups needing to process tragedy and trauma. Trauma related to systemic oppression, identity, and racism is highly traumatizing and can create a ripple effect that retriggers trauma over and over. A Wellbeing Circle allows people to process the event and express their feelings rather than letting the pain, trauma, and stress continue to build and hurt.
Focusing on wellbeing in the workplace is crucial for any workplace, but it’s especially important for those in human services as they often work directly with others to process and explore trauma. We wouldn’t send in a firefighter to a burning building without protection. Wellbeing Circles and Team Wellness provide that protective support. By helping human service professionals increase their own sense of safety and wellbeing, they are better positioned to help others. Just as trauma can create a negative ripple effect in the workplace, wellbeingness can make a positive ripple through the workplace and the greater community.
If your team is looking for a way to increase resilience, support each other, and address vicarious trauma, Share is here to help. Reach out today to learn more about ways to improve wellbeing in the workplace. We’re happy to provide guidance and effective wellness approaches to support your team.