Promoting health and wellness is an important part of daily life for everyone. It’s something we often hear advocates encouraging victims and survivors of domestic violence to do as they recover from the trauma they experienced. We hear less about how advocates, in doing the work with trauma survivors, open themselves up to an occupational hazard known as vicarious trauma. Supervisors and leadership at domestic violence organizations can lessen the impacts of vicarious trauma for their employees with some forethought and strategy about how their organization runs on a day to day basis.
By the time you finish reading this blog post, you will understand what vicarious trauma is, that it’s a normal part of working with survivors, learn some of the negative impacts it can have on both an individual and an organization, and have a number of concrete ideas that you can implement at your domestic violence program or shelter.
The first step towards understanding vicarious trauma lays not only in understanding the definition but also distinguishing it from compassion fatigue and burnout.
Vicarious trauma is experienced when a person is “continuously exposed to other people’s traumatic experiences” by hearing a survivor’s story and thereby standing witness to the fear and terror the survivor felt. Vicarious trauma can even lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Compassion fatigue is similar, but with one important difference. Like vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue occurs after regularly hearing or witnessing traumatic stories. But in compassion fatigue, this leads to a lost ability to feel empathy for clients, coworkers and even loved ones.
It’s important to not confuse vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue with burnout. Vicarious trauma and/or compassion fatigue can lead to burnout when they’ve been going on for so long, and for burnout recovery, longer term support is vital. Burnout happens over time and can occur in any profession or industry. As burnout builds, sometimes a simple change can improve or eliminate burnout; for example, the finance analyst who burns out at her job and decides to make a drastic career switch to teaching middle school math might find her feelings of burnout receding. Taking time off can also ward off burnout. But in contrast, vicarious trauma is marked by the employee’s own experiences with tension and preoccupation resulting from traumatic experiences clients describe.
People working with survivors of any kind of trauma experience vicarious trauma simply because of the nature of the work. This is true for counselors, social workers and advocates, as well as anyone who interacts regularly with trauma survivors (e.g. nurses, humanitarian workers, etc). Feeling the emotional and psychological toll in these “helping professions” are normal and to be expected and should be anticipated by the organization. Putting structures in place that can reduce vicarious trauma is critical for the organization’s long-term success. When we reconsider vicarious trauma as an occupation hazard, “organizations providing services to trauma victims have a practical and ethical responsibility to address this risk.” By normalizing the effects of vicarious trauma, supervisors and executive directors create a safer and more supportive environment for employees, give workers permission to take care of themselves, and “remove any feelings of shame or inadequacy associated with the experience of vicarious trauma.”
Vicarious trauma can negatively impact your domestic violence program or shelter at both a personal and organizational level.
At the personal level, vicarious trauma can impact a professional’s “performance and function, as well as result in errors in judgement and mistakes.” An advocate’s vicarious trauma can negatively impact her work, her colleagues’, how well the organization functions, and the quality of assistance she provides to domestic violence victims. It can also negatively impact elements of her personal life, like her relationships with family and friends or her own emotional and/or physical health. It’s common for those who work with traumatized clients to be challenged in their personal beliefs about justice and human cruelty; even hearing stories about survivors failed by systems such as the court and law enforcement can take its toll.
If organizational leadership doesn’t establish and reinforce a trauma informed culture within the workplace (effective and supportive management, open lines of communication, sensitivity towards staff, encouragement of self care) there is an increased risk of staff experiencing vicarious trauma. When individual team members suffer, expect your turnover to increase and your morale to decrease. Ultimately, this affects the quality of the services you provide to domestic violence victims.
As an organization, you have the power to either promote job satisfaction or contribute to burnout. Next, we’ll identify some concrete ways you can do the former while avoiding the latter.
Successfully diminishing vicarious trauma will differ significantly depending on your organization’s resources, but ideas for doing so include hiring an expert on the issue to conduct training for staff or recommending books such as Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. No matter how small or large your domestic violence program or shelter is, you can (and should!) implement awareness about vicarious trauma and take a proactive approach to it and by creating policies aimed reducing vicarious trauma, you are showing both your staff and your clients that everyone’s health and safety matters.
The most immediate action you can take to reduce vicarious trauma in your organization is to acknowledge its impact on both your individual staff members and the organization as a whole. Just naming it, acknowledging it, and identifying the risks is a simple place to start.
Next, create a plan. Here are some concrete ideas to consider as your plan grows and takes shape.
Effective supervision is a necessary to prevent and heal vicarious trauma. While providing emotional support, supervisors also have the chance to teach staff about vicarious trauma in a supportive, respectful, and sensitive way.
If you don’t already, initiate regular check-ins with employees you supervise. Make sure these check ins are used not only as a time to discuss progress, challenges, and questions, but also as a time to celebrate successes and generate ideas. Use them as a chance to talk about situations as they arise and to assess how your staff may be coping with the natural stress of the job.
Group debriefs can also be useful, as peers and supervisors up against the same challenges may help validate and normalize the feelings some staff may be having, especially when processing traumatic material. Social support can also come by way of accepting a co-worker’s offer to help with paperwork or backup.
Consider Diversifying Workloads
The more time spent with traumatized individuals increases one’s risk of stress but spending time in other work activities can decrease this risk. This might mean assigning your employee a more diverse caseload or suggesting they focus on troubleshooting other problems the client is facing. Or it may mean diversifying your job descriptions to include elements of research, education, and outreach in addition to working directly with clients. Advocates benefit by participating in social change activities, like providing community education and outreach, or by working on policy initiatives. Having a more diverse workload can empower advocates to think outside the box and grow their skillset and may enable them to keep the traumatic experiences in perspective.
2. Offer Your Staff Resources, Education and Training about Vicarious Trauma
Simply educating your staff about trauma and its potential impacts reduces the risk of vicarious trauma. “Information can help individuals to name their experience and provide a framework for understanding and responding to it.” There are a number of trainings available online and often times there are workshops and conferences that address this. If your agency is not equipped to send all staff to a conference, perhaps have one team member participate and then report back to the group on what they learned. By providing your team with context regarding vicarious trauma, it helps them feel more capable and have a realistic perspective on what they can achieve.
Including vicarious trauma and ways to reduce it can be discussed with new team members at their staff orientation. Create and implement regular vicarious trauma trainings for your staff to teach and remind them about its potential dangers and why proactively addressing it may help to promote safety and wellness for the entire team.
3. Encourage Self-Care
Offer Internal Support and Resources
Discuss self-care regularly in staff meetings and give specific ideas on how employees can integrate it into their daily life both at work and at home.
Make time for social interactions, like celebrating birthdays or major life events, in addition to team building activities and staff retreats. Promoting staff morale can create a supportive culture and goes a long way, especially when other incentives and raises may not be in the budget.
Provide vacation and sick time to employees so they can rest and recharge without worrying that it may impact their good standing and the organization. Consider having HR or supervisors monitor accruing vacation time and encourage staff with too much to take time off.
Even the smallest program can signal an organization’s commitment to their staff by making self-care and wellness part of their internal policies and procedures.
Offer Outside Opportunities for Staff to Participate in Wellness-Related Activities
Make counseling resources available for any staff member who interacts with traumatic material. Encourage staff to take advantage of available services like counseling, health and wellness. A large organization may have the ability to offer mental health coverage as part of their health insurance plan.
If your program or shelter isn’t able to offer this, reach out to community partners and explore a trade. For example, you could trade wellness opportunities like free yoga classes or counseling at reduced rates in exchange for going to the partner’s workplace and training their staff on domestic violence. Organizing a simple staff walk at lunchtime or meditation group at the end of the day are also simple and easy ways to encourage self-care for little to no cost.
4. Stimulate Staff Creativity
It’s easy to feel helpless, even hopeless, when your creativity takes a dive. The feeling of not making a difference is like kryptonite for your staff’s productivity. Offering staff members outlets to express their creativity helps replenish that sense of accomplishment.
One easy, simple, and cost-effective approach is to encourage your staff to decorate their offices and/or workspaces. It’s easy to forget how the physical space surrounding us has its own impact on us and those coming through our doors. For example, swap the overhead fluorescent lights for lamps that create either a bright and active feeling or a more subdued and relaxing feeling, depending on what the space requires. Get everyone in on the makeover fun by announcing at an all-staff meeting and brainstorming ideas. Encourage staff to not only bring living plants or hang artwork to transform a room, but to add personal touches like family pictures and photos or mementos from a vacation. Employees need personally meaningful items in their workspace, and encouraging photos of children or places they’ve visited or artwork that features a favorite quote helps remind them of who they are and why they chose this line of work.
Reinforce your commitment to staff creativity by implementing these ideas in common areas as well. Model the importance of the personal in the professional by making over waiting rooms, meeting rooms, and break rooms with positive imagery and soothing nature scenes. Your clients will pick up on the changes as well as your staff!
“By working in the field of anti-violence we fight oppression on
many forms and it eventually seeps into our hearts and minds.”
Now that you understand what vicarious trauma is, what impacts it can have on people and organizations, and have some ideas on how to get started, it might be time to shift some policies and practices for both you and the staff members you oversee. Some changes, like altering workloads and providing mental health benefits may have costs associated with them. But when examining your cost benefit analysis, bring things like staff turnover and low morale into the equation. Other changes you can bring to the organization, like creating a culture that encourages self-care, might have fewer hard costs attached.
The most important thing to do with vicarious trauma is to name it. And that, thankfully, doesn’t cost a thing.