Vicarious Trauma and Compassion Fatigue

Last month, in my blog on workplace bullying, I referenced a phenomenon called vicarious trauma and I’ve gotten a number of questions about what that is and what to do about it.

Vicarious trauma is the cumulative effect of witnessing trauma or its after effects. Most people are not confronting trauma on a daily basis at their workplaces. But if you work in fields like healthcare, law (think personal injury or family law), law enforcement, fire fighting, or insurance (think home and auto), your job is to respond to people in some of the worst moments of their lives. You may take this for granted, but most people don’t work in professions of compassion.

Over time, vicarious trauma can accumulate and you may find yourself in a state of compassion fatigue (we used to call this burnout). Symptoms include:

• Hopelessness and a negative world view

• General grumpiness and difficulty relating to others

• Feeling de-skilled and ineffective

• A lack of motivation

• Working longer hours and getting less done

• Intrusive thoughts about other people’s traumas

• Sleep disturbance

The good news is that you can recover. You can also avoid compassion fatigue through self-care. First, you have to include yourself in your own compassion.  Go easy on yourself and others.  Ask for, and accept, support.  Express yourself through writing, drawing, or talking with others.  Eat well, exercise and rest; take time off and have fun.  Know your limits. Integrate relaxation or mindfulness practices into your life.

Remember that the need for your compassion will never end, so pace yourself for the long haul.

Published in AAC, Best Practices, Professional, Work-life Balance