​​​​​​ Are we better at helping clients
than we are at helping each other?

I served 25 years as a supervisor and manager in social services.  We did not know the term vicarious trauma in the early days. We  talked about  a person being "burned out"and  "jaded," often subtly blaming the person for not taking care of themselves or staying too long in social services.

We prided ourselves on understanding and helping the clients we served while often ignoring our coworkers' mounting trauma.

These days we know more about the affects of working in the caring and trauma professions. We know that police, medical workers, social workers, fireman, and more can develop post traumatic stress disorder from direct exposure to trauma. We also know they can be impacted by vicarious trauma from exposure to the trauma that others suffer.

However . . .

despite all the advances made,
many organizations, groups, families and individuals  still create  systems, rules
 and personal environments that foster vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.



                                 ORGANIZATIONAL SYSTEMS BARRIERS

Organizations may say they want their members to be healthy but the systems they put in place make it difficult to achieve.Some of the organizational barriers include:

  • There is no or insufficient respite for the staff (e.g. shared coverage, adequate time off, sufficient daily breaks/lunches, rotations away from the crisis etc )
  • Staff are required to have unrealistically high or complex caseloads including increasing documentation and multiple, policy-driven requirements.
  • The organization managements fail to provide adequate and timely supervision..
  • The organization denies, ignores, minimizes or sidesteps "until later" the severity and pervasiveness of clients’ traumatic experiences and their aftereffects on staff.
  • There is a failure to work with staff to identify and address signs of vicarious trauma.
  • It is perceived that the organization expects staff to be near perfect and make no mistakes.
  • The organizations fails to provide opportunities for continuing education regarding management of vicarious trauma.
  • The organization fails to actively support personal therapy for staff and line workers.


                                 EMPLOYING SUPER HELPERS

It has been suggested that helping organizations, even the healthy ones,  attract people who themselves have experienced trauma or loss. They want to be the best helper for others, to undo what happened to themselves  or create fairness and justice for others.

Not so oddly, organizations that do not effectively deal with vicarious trauma may seek out or  attract SUPER HELPERS as staff and management.  After all, the super helper works and keeps on working.

Unfortunately these super helpers might bring to the organization beliefs and patterns that foster vicarious trauma for themselves and the organization.

Raymond Giles, a national recognized speaker, counselor and  director of  trauma treatment programs for 30 years created a list of some of those personal beliefs and factors that contribute to personal and group vicarious trauma.

  • Unrealistic expectations for oneself as a professional.
  • Ones own trauma history that may be reawakened by client material.
  • Ones own personal coping style is not helpful or may carry heavy costs (e.g. addictions, numbness, isolation).
  • An over-identification with the client followed by a desire or attempts to rescue.
  • Current stressful personal life circumstances.
  • Working in areas in which a helper has insufficient training or inadequate theoretical understanding of the issues.
  • Reluctance or barriers to using supervision and consultation.
  • Ones failure to recognize manipulations by clients (e.g. “you’re the only one that can really understand me”).
  • Having a missionary orientation to the work.
  • Being new to working with traumatized populations.

                                     TOO TIRED TO FALL ASLEEP

The personal  and organizational characteristics of vicarious trauma in themselves can become a barrier to change for individuals and agencies already impacted by vicarious trauma. Its rather like a person who is so tired they are too tired to go to sleep.

Think about this . . .

An organization that has high caseloads and multiple expectations and is staffed by workers on a mission to 'undo" may be less likely to create sustainable programs and process for dealing with vicarious trauma when new cases are looming.

An organization that is perceived as being intolerant of staff mistakes and has employees who tend to isolate and not seek supervision or self care may be less likely to encourage crisis debriefing  and genuine, meaningful support over time.  

Is it hopeless? 

Now that's a vicarious trauma tinged statement!

No it is not hopeless, disastrous, awful, terrible or rotten or any other number of trauma inspired words. Organizations and individuals can create sustainable methods for dealing with vicarious trauma.




There are eleven critical factors organizations and individuals need to heed in order to effectively deal with vicarious trauma. 

These factors are adapted from several articles. Links to the full articles are given at the end.


1.  constantly evaluate how the individual and organizational view of the world and  basic assumptions about themselves and others are changed as they see, hear of, or experience trauma.

2. evaluate how all of their changing perceptions and beliefs as a result of being exposed to trauma are impacting how they all work with clients and the policies and programs they create.

3. acknowledge and address their need for a sense of security and safety both personally and professionally. This includes physical safety in their surroundings and emotional safety in dealing with clients, the public, coworkers and management.

4. are aware they  need to be able to trust themselves,each other and trust others and that they need to take steps to make this possible. They develop the skills and abilities to do their personal and professional work, manage their emotions and meet their own physical needs. They support others they work with to take steps to have adequate skills and ability in those areas too..

5. know they need a strong sense of self esteem and esteem and value  for others. This especially includes a genuine esteem and value  of clients, coworkers, groups who interact with them. They challenge their words, policies, actions and thoughts to support personal self esteem and esteem for others.

6. realize they need to feel connected and as individuals and an organization they support ways for all  to feel connected.

7.  are aware that each person in the organization needs a sense of control and self management. They need to know they can make decisions about their lives and future. They need to see they have impact on their work and what affects them. They need to be aware they have choices and are not victims of people, organizations,structures or situations. They work together as an organization  to assure each person has that sense of control and self management. They take individual responsibility for their own sense of control and for not impeding others' sense of control.

8. are encouraged and supported by the organization and individually take steps to have balanced lives and healthy personal coping strategies.

9. are offered and seek out peer supervision so that we learn from each other and normalize our experiences.

10.seek out and take the opportunity and are required and supported with backup and resources as part of our work time to engage in professional development and training.

11. We are assigned workloads that reflect the support, supervision and resources available to us and take into consideration our own experience and training. We make use of all resources available to us to meet our workload  and make it known to the organization if our workload does not match the available resources and our own skills.


 Each organization and indivudal is different. While some people and groups can sit down and map out how they accomplish the 11 critical steps, others may prefer accessing additonal information. Following are a sampling of the resources avaliable.

                             Preventing Vicarious Trauma, an article by the Maryland  Coalition against Sexual Assault.


                     Child Welfare information Gateway. This site includes a series of articles and presentations on compassion fatigue amongst child welfare worker.

                      A research article about Organizational Prevention of Vicarious Trauma. This "scholarly article" has been reprinted and referenced on various sites. Its message is that the organization or agency has a responsibility for addressing and even fostering vicarious trauma conditions.  It outlines steps an agency can take to make it less traumatic for workers  to be in the caring professions.

                     Vicarious Trauma and Self Care, a power point presentation by Dr Judith Pierson for the Department of Health and Social Services in Delaware. This simple and visually pleasing power point gives an effective overview of vicarious trauma and how to make personal and agency changes. While not indepth as it obviously was used in a presentation, it is a worthwhile introduction if you have just a few minutes to scan the topic.

                     Vicarious Traumatization and Spirituality in Law Enforcement, an article shared by FBI.

vicarious trauma

when helping hurts



The woman was not the first shaky and exhausted person to sit in my office. I had seen that look on the faces of other social workers.

I listened as she talked, words I had heard before.

I have these feelings about what I've seen and heard .

I just don't deal with my feelings. 

I keep busy, doing more and more.

I try to remove the images and stories from my memory but they creep in. 
No, actually they barge in.
 I have trouble falling asleep, hour after hour. 

Sometimes other things make me think

about what  happened..  I hate that.


 I  feel so strange.

Have you considered that you are experiencing vicarious trauma, I asked her.