What to do if caring for others starts to affect you

Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue can have a major impact on health workers.
Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue can have a major impact on health workers.

As part of the launch of the WSLHD employee wellbeing program, the team at the Western Sydney Integrated Violence Prevention and Response Service are highlighting an issue that can affect many health workers – vicarious trauma. 

Health workers often work directly or indirectly with people who have experienced trauma, grief, loss, violence or conflict.

As a result of this, health workers can often experience changes in the way they see themselves – and the world.

Vicarious trauma is a change that happens to workers over time as they witness and engage with other people’s suffering and need. A related issue is compassion fatigue, a condition characterised by emotional distress or apathy resulting from the constant demand of caring for others.

Workers may find witnessing (and sometimes sharing in) the suffering of people they are helping has led to personal changes they appreciate – such as increased compassion and gratitude, and a deeper understanding of what they value in their own lives and why.

However, some changes that come from witnessing and experiencing suffering can be more problematic.

Continuous exposure to trauma can lead to employees’ experiencing similar symptoms to the clients they are exposed to.

Workers may sometimes feel numb, disconnected, isolated, overwhelmed, and depressed.

Research indicates there are an astounding number of people in the “helping” profession, who are being affected by vicarious trauma.

 

It is thought that between 40 and 85 per cent of “helping professionals” develop vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and/or high rates of traumatic symptoms.

Vicarious trauma can impact negatively on workers’ health in many ways, with physical effects, and behavioural and cognitive impacts.

Recognition and awareness is important in managing vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue, as is building resilience.

Some strategies that might help you build resilience and cope with vicarious trauma include:

  • Building a support network and making time to meet with people in your network regularly.
  • Ask for a debriefing session at work after a critical event or when you need it. If it isn’t available, reach out to a therapist or to your employee assistance program.
  • Find better ways to decompress: at the end of a long day, many of us are tempted to reach for a glass of pinot, a bowl of chips or the remote. In moderation, none of these are a problem, but when we start using them regularly to numb out from stressful jobs, they can become a crutch and even lead to a serious addiction. Instead, go for a run or a walk, play with your pets, journal, do yoga, meditate, spend time with children — yours or someone else’s.
  • Practice mindfulness-based stress reduction: try it for three minutes a day, and gradually build up to 10-20 minutes.
  • Reduce your trauma inputs: take a look at the amount of traumatic material you are exposed to while watching the news and your favourite TV shows and when reading for pleasure.

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