Trauma in Human Service Workers

trauma in human service workersHuman service workers – eg psychologists, nurses and carers, social workers, clergy – are at risk of developing Vicarious Trauma (also known as secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Due to the nature of their work, human service workers are frequently exposed to stories of trauma, becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured. As a result, symptoms of Vicarious Trauma may develop.

Symptoms of Trauma in Human Service Workers

If you are employed in a helping profession – do you ever feel like you are “exhausted”, detaching from the work you love, or becoming numb to the emotional impact of who and what you deal with on a daily basis?

These symptoms may sound like “burnout”, but the two should not be confused. Burnout is generally something that happens over time, and a change, such as time off or a new and sometimes different job, can take care of burnout or improve it.

The nature of being in a “helping” profession can be particularly stressful when it involves listening to detailed descriptions of very painful, often horrific events; it may also involve helpers re-enacting survivor’s early experiences of trauma and betrayal.

There is no doubt that hearing and thinking about the stories one hears can continue well after the client has left the therapeutic interaction.

The various demands of agencies/employers can increase the pressure, creating a climate where Vicarious Trauma can result.

Historically, the reactions of human service workers to client traumas were regarded as either burnout or counter-transference.

Instead, currently, Vicarious Trauma is now recognised as a consequence of workers being exposed to clients’ traumatic experiences;

Vicarious Trauma is defined as the cumulative transformative effect on the helper, of working with survivors of traumatic life events, both positive and negative.

Support for Human Service Workers

trauma risk in human service workersWorking with trauma victims greatly affects the helper, and we need to address the effects in order to protect both helper and clients. Vicarious Trauma is unavoidable and is the natural consequence of being human, connecting to and caring about our clients, as we see the effects of trauma on their lives.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE! This is important to recognise and manage.

The single most important factor in the success or failure of trauma work, relates to the attention paid to the experience and the needs of the helper. We cannot meet the needs of our clients when we are overriding our own.

Vicarious Trauma can affect much more than just the human service worker’s job. It can also impact how they relate to their families, friends, and partners; they may experience changes in esteem for themselves and for others.

Vicarious Trauma impacts on areas of psychological need including: safety, trust, esteem, intimacy and control. The signs and symptoms of VT include:

  • Emotional numbing
  • Social withdrawal
  • Work-related nightmares
  • Feelings of despair and hopelessness
  • Loss of sense of spirituality
  • Increasingly negative view of the world
  • Reduced sense of respect for your clients
  • Loss of enjoyment of sexual activity
  • No time or energy for yourself
  • Feeling that you can’t discuss work with family or friends
  • Finding that you talk about work all the time (can’t escape)
  • Sense of disconnection from your loved ones
  • Increased sense of danger (reduced sense of safety)
  • Increased fear for safety of children or loved ones
  • Sense of cynicism or pessimism
  • Increased illness or fatigue
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Greater problems with boundaries
  • Difficulties making decisions
  • Reduced productivity
  • Reduced motivation for your work
  • Loss of sense of control over your work and your life
  • Lowered self esteem, lowered sense of competence in your work
  • Difficulties trusting others
  • Lessened interest in spending time alone or reflecting on your experiences at work.

Preventing and Managing Vicarious Trauma

If you are a human service worker, the single biggest risk factor is exposure to any trauma material – whether it be written, verbal or interpersonal.

It is very important that you access supervision and advice in identifying and managing Vicarious Trauma, and developing a personal, meaningful self care strategy and plan. This plan might include:

  • Anticipating Vicarious Trauma and protecting oneself;
  • Addressing any signs or symptoms;
  • Transforming the pain of Vicarious Trauma: what can you do to turn the negative impact of your work into a connection with some positive aspects of meaning and community? Some examples might be:
    • Creating meaning;
    • Infusing meaning in other activities;
    • Challenging negative beliefs;
    • Self validation and acknowledgement.

For those in any helping profession, it is extremely important to invest in yourself. Intervention will assist to identify workplace risk factors associated with Vicarious Trauma, strategies to counter distortions about self, others and society, and most importantly, develop a meaningful self care plan.

If you are looking for a psychologist with experience in this field, I have helped many employed in the human services field to identify and manage workplace risk factors and burnout, but most importantly, Vicarious Trauma.

Trudy Sheffield treats vicarious traumaAuthor: Trudy Sheffield, B Beh Sc (1st Class Hons).

Trudy Sheffield is a Brisbane psychologist with a passion for assisting others in helping professions, to address their professional needs and practice with balance, insight, self care and reflection.

To make an appointment with Trudy Sheffield, freecall 1800 877 924 or try online booking – Mt Gravatt today