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.

What is Vicarious Trauma
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 involves the typical ‘symptoms’ of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) including:

  • Avoidance
  • Hyper-arousal or hypo-arousal
  • Re-experiencing
  • Negative thoughts

It also includes:

  • Feeling that work is less meaningful
  • Negative shifts to views about the world, yourself and your relationships

What Causes 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:

  • Working directly with clients who have experienced trauma. Clients may verbally disclose details to you, or you may require these details to do your job. You may also read about their trauma in files or documents prepared by other services.
  • Reading details about trauma while filing or assisting with administration for a co-worker – e.g. as a Personal Assistant or administrative worker.
  • Reading details about traumatic events in order to prepare incident reports.
  • Reviewing audio-visual materials as part of an investigation.

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.:

  • High workloads
  • Poor or insufficient supervision
  • Low job control

Preventing Vicarious Trauma
Because vicarious trauma is a risk to workers’ psychological health and safety, prevention must be guided by the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Employers must provide the highest level of protection to workers’ health and safety that is reasonably practicable.

In some circumstances, workers may be unnecessarily exposed to traumatic content. Employers can therefore eliminate the risk of vicarious trauma by removing exposure to traumatic content for these workers.

However, exposure to traumatic content is an inherent part of many workers’ roles. In this case, the risk of vicarious trauma cannot be wholly eliminated. In these circumstances, employers must reduce the risk of vicarious trauma as far as reasonably practicable.

Organisational interventions relating to vicarious trauma and other mental injuries can be classified as either proactive, ameliorative or reactive. The best approach uses all three types of interventions:

• reducing organisational stressors (proactive)
• enhancing workers’ ability to cope with remaining organisational stressors (ameliorative)
• and offering support to workers who are impacted by work (reactive).