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Impact of Trauma and Opportunities for Healing for the Workforce

The impact of trauma may show up in staff as vicarious trauma or burnout, or at the institutional level as organizational trauma. Workplace wellness policies and program are preventive antidotes and offer pathways to individuals and organizational healing.

You're living in it [vicarious trauma] and you don't even realize it.

Vanessa Johnson, Ribbon, Toolkit Advisory Panel

Vicarious Trauma is a “profound shift in worldview that occurs in helping professionals when they work with individuals who have experienced trauma. Helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and possibly damaged by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material” (Pearlman & Saakvitne, (1995)). Health and social service providers are often exposed to difficult stories about their clients or bear witness to symptoms of trauma (e.g., aggression or anger). As the TIA Toolkit Advisory Panel noted, many persons in caregiving professions are drawn to the work based on their own personal experiences, thus increasing the risk for vicarious trauma.

Vicarious Trauma Reflection Questions

Vicarious Trauma: Use the following reflection questions to think through your experience within your work and what supports are in place or need to be put in place to better support you and your colleagues. You can refer to NASTAD’s Vicarious Trauma Assessment and Prevention to build upon these questions.

  1. How do you know you are beginning to feel burnt out?
  2. What helps you to separate the experiences you are bearing witness to from your own?
  3. What would be helpful in a work environment/organizational culture to help you put down the weight of what you are bearing witness to?
  4. As a worker, what choices do you get to make over your time during the workday?

Professional Burnout “is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.” (WHO).

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Workplace Wellness: While organizational healing can repair organizational trauma, workforce wellness programs offer healing at the individual staff level. Workplace wellness is a central tenet of a trauma-informed approach, and attends to both protective factors (e.g., training, supervision, and a manageable caseload) and risk factors (e.g., personal trauma history, isolation, and length of employment) among employees. Workforce wellness strategies include a menu of services, benefits, and policies, including health insurance, wellness plans, paid leave policies, provision of physical and emotional spaces for healing, and celebration. Workforce wellness builds on the workforce’s resilience and remedies the psychological impacts of working in health and social services, such as vicarious trauma and burnout, especially common among caregiving providers. Terms like vicarious trauma, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue are often used interchangeably, with debate about their definitions.

Vicarious trauma and burnout in the workforce have numerous negative impacts on an agency, from workplace culture to high rates of turnover. Staff can use NASTAD’s Vicarious Trauma Assessment and Prevention to self-assess their level of burnout and vicarious trauma, and to work with their supervisor and organization to prevent them. Workplace wellness policies and practices provide opportunities to reduce trauma and build upon resilience within the workforce. Organizations can use NASTAD’s Workplace Wellness Strategies resources to address workforce burnout.