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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Compassion Fatigue and Trauma Work

On Tuesday 29 November my students and I watched a DVD about secondary trauma, compassion fatigue and burn out; all conditions that can effect individuals working with clients who have suffered psychological trauma. Those of us who work with children are particularly at risk of developing a reaction - the vulnerability of children and an inbuilt need to protect them from harm can leave us feeling powerless and helpless when faced with a child's distress and suffering.

Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma is a term used to describe a range of symptoms effecting individuals who attend traumatic incidents where people are killed or seriously injured. Fire fighters, police officers and paramedics are particularly at risk; but individuals working as nurses, doctors, therapists and support workers, caring for traumatised individuals, can also develop the symptoms of secondary trauma. Our ability to empathise with others leaves us vulnerable to traumatic reactions when we are helping individuals who have experienced overwhelming amounts of distress. Individuals exposed to secondary trauma may experience symptoms that are similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that effects individuals directly involved in the traumatic incident: flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, depression, anxiety, avoidance, anger, hyper-vigilance, alcohol and drug misuse.

Compassion Fatigue

Individuals regularly working with the victims of trauma and abuse may develop or be at risk of developing compassion fatigue. Overwhelmed by the amount of traumatic information he or she is seeing, feeling and hearing, the individual's mind reacts to protect the individual. This involves closing down emotionally so the person is no longer emotionally available to their clients (and family); the individual may become tired, impatient, cynical and dissociated from their work. Stress builds and individuals react by becoming frustrated and angry. Losing our sense of humour is one of the first signs of compassion fatigue. An individual my also lose their common sense and become angry - passion replaces compassion. In these circumstances the individual needs to take a break. Once he or she has recharged his or her batteries the zest for work usually returns.

Burn Out

If the individual continues to work with trauma, despite experiencing compassion fatigue, then he or she may go on to experience burn out. In these circumstances the individual loses their desire and ability to do their job, a state of total exhaustion takes over, often accompanied by depression. The individual's mind and body is in revolt and will not allow them to continue being with distress and trauma. Recovery from burn out may take many months, or even years, and often results in a change of role for the individual or even a change in career.

Protecting Workers

Advice from senior professionals on the DVD centred on the need for a work-life balance: plenty of sleep, rest, exercise, sex, relationships, interests and hobbies, innoculate the trauma worker against compassion fatigue and burn out and increases resilience. At an agency level there is a need for supervision in order to help workers off load. Individuals new in post are particularly vulnerable to trauma reactions so effective training and support is essential.


How did you react to the DVD? What issues were important for you?

List some of the signs of stress in you and your colleagues?

Individuals working with children may be particularly at risk of developing compassion fatigue. What do you do to maintain a work life balance?

Further Reading

Educating Child Welfare Workers About Secondary Trauma and Stress: HERE


  1. After seeing the DVD I started thinking back about times that I have had secondary trauma. I had never realized until now that I had suffered from it in many ways. The important issues for me where to ensure that I take time out for myself, and also learn to switch off (this I find difficult)

    Stress sighns are can be-: twitching, lack of attention, sweating, tiredness, temper, upset.

    This Dvd makes you aware how people in every lfe from any age, sex and profession at some points in their life have to deal with some type of trauma.... Very powerful.

    P.s. Thanks for the free viewing :)Simon

  2. Thanks Simon. I found the DVD very powerful too. I was surprised that some of the leading researchers and practitioners in trauma work had themselves been so effected. It brought it home to me that we are all vulnerable and need to look after ourselves. Thanks for posting!

  3. Thanks for the dvd John,
    I found it very useful, it made me realise that time away from work needs to be just that, in order to recharge and be able to face the next day. A good friend of mine suffered a horrendous trauma some years ago, and when she told me the account of what had happened, i burst into tears, at the time i felt very bad as she had managed to be strong enough to deal with the trauma and survive and i was crying at merely hearing the details, i now understand why this was.
    I think that the dvd has also helped me to try and watch for signs of compassion fatigue in collegues and to lend support if i see that people in my team are struggling. On a lighter note it has also led to me instigating a really fun team building event and works do, i passed on the information from the film and said that we 'needed' to let our hair down!

  4. I have noticed myself and my collegues sometimes being irritable, not ideal when you are working with teenagers who could try the patience of a saint! We have supervision meetings with our manager, where we can discuss any worries and talk about how we feel. There also seems to be a current trend of people being ill when they are finally off work for a week, this has happened to me twice!Im guessing that this is related.

  5. Hi John, firstly, thanks for sharing the dvd with us, I found it very interesting to watch. I was rather surprised at how many of us are in danger of suffering secondary trauma - it's not really something I'd given much thought to. It made me realise why it's so important to manage your work-life balance and to try to ensure that work stays at work and make time for yourself doing something that you enjoy when not at work. However, I guess that this is somewhat easier said than done in most situations.

    I don't think I have ever suffered from secondary trauma myself although I do recognise many of the signs in people that are close to me.

    Very insightful and powerful DVD, thanks again for sharing.


  6. Hello Lois and Liz, Thanks for sharing, I agree that the issues in the video are with us more than we realise. When we are ill the moment we have some time off, or those times when we can't face work, those could be early signs that we need some time out. Our unconscious mind telling us we need to look after ourselves.