Vicarious trauma: identifying the warning signs

Work-related stress can be attributed to many causes and, if the reasons are not identified and acted upon, this stress can lead to a wide range of health conditions including mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to vicarious trauma.

Exposure to trauma through your job can have serious health consequences

Similarly, exposure to traumatic events and other emotionally disturbing information in the capacity of one's job can also have serious health consequences.

Just how serious an impact it can have was evidenced by the Victorian Government’s announcement in 2016 that the Minister for Police and Corrections, Wade Noonan, was taking extended leave from his duties to get help for exposure to "unspeakable crimes and traumatic events".

In a statement released on 8 February 2016, Mr Noonan said: "The accumulation of these experiences has taken an unexpected toll… I need to receive further support and assistance including professional counselling. This has been a difficult decision but I believe it is the right one." 

Many workers are exposed to shocking things in the course of their jobs. Police and other emergency services workers, for instance, see, hear and, at times, witness repeated traumatic incidents in the course of their work. So too do people who work in courts, child-protection workers, doctors and nurses, counsellors, lawyers and multiple other professions.

Several occupations also require workers to empathically engage with traumatic information, as well as listen, validate, understand and respond to the trauma of others. This is despite the risks this can also pose to one’s emotional and psychological health, which is commonly referred to as vicarious trauma.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is the debilitating emotional and psychological impact of connecting with the traumatic and disturbing life events of other people. It is an insidious form of stress and can accumulate over time, and has the capacity to alter one’s view of the world and the people around them. It can also affect a person's cognitive functioning and values, and be as debilitating as experiencing the trauma in person. Symptoms of vicarious trauma can include:

  • feeling emotionally numb
  • increased irritability or anxiety
  • social withdrawal
  • suffering work-related nightmares
  • feelings of despair and hopelessness
  • a more negative view of the world
  • increased illness and fatigue
  • increased sense of danger
  • reduced motivation for your work
  • difficulties making decisions or concentrating
  • reduced productivity at work
  • avoiding certain things
  • increased absenteeism
  • increased alcohol, drug or medication use to help cope. 

Managing such risks form an important part of employers' Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) obligations to their staff. But a 2015 report released by Safe Work Australia titled Work-related mental disorders profile (add HYPERINK), revealed that between 2008-09 and 2012-13, on average, around 90 per cent of workers' compensation claims involving a mental condition were linked to mental stress. Exposure to trauma was identified among these conditions. 

How should we treat vicarious trauma?

Identifying the warning signs of vicarious trauma, reducing the risks where possible, and managing the potential health impacts are vital for one’s health. Strategies that may be useful include:

  • discussing work-related issues with a colleague, peer support officer or line manager, or, if necessary, seek debriefing with an Employee Assistance Service counsellor
  • using regular physical activity and recreation to help dissipate stress;
  • avoiding the use of alcohol and drugs as a way of coping;
  • undergoing training and workshops about reducing the effects of work-induced trauma;
  • taking lunch breaks away from your desk or working space, in order to clear your mind.

Minister Noonan should be commended for acknowledging that he was not coping with what he had been exposed to in the course of his role, and for being open about the need to take time out and seek the appropriate help. Likewise, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews should be congratulated for supporting what is in the best interest of Mr Noonan’s health.

Let’s hope public declarations from sufferers and supporters alike prompt other people experiencing the effects of vicarious trauma to come forward and seek help from their employers, and that employers fulfil their obligations by providing the necessary support.

Vicarious trauma workplace injury

RELATED LEGAL SERVICES: Work related injuries

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Liberty Sanger

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne

Liberty Sanger is a Principal Lawyer at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, and she leads our national personal injury compensation departments. Liberty is a qualified Law Institute of Victoria Personal Injury Accredited Specialist and she is recognised by the prestigious Doyles Guide as one of only five leading lawyers in workers' compensation in Victoria.

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