Compassion Fatigue & Vicarious Trauma

While working as a helping professional or in a caregiver role can be extremely rewarding, there is increasing recognition that workers and caregivers may be profoundly impacted by the work that they do. Compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma may be one of these impacts.

Compassion Fatigue refers to the profound emotional and physical exhaustion that helping professionals and caregivers can develop in the process of helping others. It is a gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others: our empathy, our hope, and our compassion- not only for others but also for ourselves (Mathieu, F., 2012).

Vicarious trauma may occur as a result of cumulative exposure to traumatic images and stories. Exposure to traumatic material can come from professional or personal experiences. Helpers notice that their fundamental beliefs about the world are altered and/or damaged by being repeatedly exposed to traumatic material. Helpers may be traumatized by the images and details to which they are exposed even though they did not experience the event(s) themselves (Mathieu, F., 2012).

The following list of signs and symptoms is adapted from Mathieu, F., 2012.

  • Physical/emotional exhaustion
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Increased risk of illness
  • Stress-related physical ailments or anxiety about physical health
  • Depression
  • Use of substances or addictive behaviours
  • Missing work
  • Resentment/anger/irritability
  • Exaggerated sense of responsibility
  • Avoidance of duties associated with your helping role/responsibilities
  • Dread of working with particular clients
  • Compromised care for clients
  • Quitting/Sick Leave
  • Distancing yourself from others
  • Impaired ability to make decisions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Problems in personal relationships
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy/empathy
  • Feeling cynical toward colleagues, clients, family, friends
  • Negative thoughts about self and skills
  • Feeling helpless/hopeless or unable to make a difference
  • Diminished sense of enjoyment
  • “Zoning/spacing out”
  • Alteration of world views and heightened anxiety/fear (i.e. ability to see the world as a safe place)
  • Increased sense of personal vulnerability
  • Inability to tolerate strong feelings
  • Problems with intimacy
  • Hypervigilance (heightened awareness of potential threats as a result of your work)
  • Intrusive imagery
  • Hypersensitivity or insensitivity to emotional material/situations
  • Difficulty separating personal and professional lives
  • Failure to nurture personal aspects of life

Strategies for addressing compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma can be professional, organizational and personal.

Organizational/Professional:

  • Creating awareness of compassion fatigue and the impacts on a person in the workplace helps to normalize the experience for helpers
  • Developing a supportive work environment that encourages debriefing of work related material
  • Taking regular breaks, mental health days and availing of peer support
  • Assessing and changing workload which may involve rebalancing caseload and workload reduction
  • Improving access to professional development and training
  • Providing opportunities for staff to safely discuss the impact of work on their personal and professional lives

Personal:

  • Improving self-care (taking time for hobbies and personal “feel good” interests)
  • Maintaining social support both at home and at work
  • Increasing self-awareness (tuning in to your stress signals)
  • Reflecting on current feelings and reactions as well as the influences of past experiences
  • Monitoring your work-life balance
  • Checking in on your job satisfaction
  • Limiting exposure to trauma related material (i.e. news stories, movies)
  • Accessing regular coaching/counseling and supervision to counterbalance any existing vulnerability (e.g. personal trauma history)

The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, Francoise Mathiew, 2012