Many jobs involve learning details about trauma that other people have lived through. Common examples include working with survivors of interpersonal violence and abuse; reading reports or documents that contain details about traumatic incidents; and reviewing images or video footage of traumatic events e.g. as part of an investigation.
Because humans are empathetic by nature, engaging with traumatic details will inevitably have an impact on workers. Sometimes the impact is immediate; you may read or see something that affects you at that moment in time. Often, though, you don’t feel an immediate impact. However, over time, cumulative exposure to traumatic information can have a large impact.
Vicarious trauma is one concept used by clinical psychologists to describe the cumulative impact of empathetic engagement with other people’s trauma. Vicarious trauma is similar to, but distinct from, related concepts such as burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary traumatic stress. Vicarious trauma is not a diagnosis by itself; it falls under the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Vicarious trauma involves the typical ‘symptoms’ of PTSD, including:
It also includes:
The below resources will help you learn more about vicarious trauma.
When people experience negative mental health impacts from work, they can sometimes feel that it’s because they’re ‘not cut out for the job.’ However, the fundamental reason that they have experienced vicarious trauma isn’t something to do with them—it’s the work that they do.
The primary cause of vicarious trauma is empathic engagement with traumatic content. Exposure to traumatic content comes in many forms, depending on your role. Some common examples are:
However, other factors in the work environment also contribute to the likelihood that employees will experience vicarious trauma.
Psychosocial hazards are factors in the work environment that may cause an employee to have a negative psychological response, increasing the likelihood of mental injury. Common psychosocial hazards include high job demands, low job control, poor support, low role clarity, remote or isolated work, low recognition and reward, poor workplace relationships, bullying, sexual harassment, and occupational violence or aggression.
Research has identified several workplace factors that increase the likelihood of vicarious trauma. These factors are all examples of psychosocial hazards. E.g.:
The below resources provide further information on approaches to preventing vicarious trauma.