Remember the last time you watched a really good movie? Who was the character you related to most, and how did you feel as they faced their ups and downs in the movie? That ability to put yourself in their shoes is a powerful human instinct we often call empathy. It helps us come together and relate to one another as human beings, but it can have a cost. One situation where empathy can cost us is when we are exposed to traumatic events that someone else has experienced. When we empathise with that person’s traumatic experience, we can come to experience the same post-traumatic response as they do. This is called vicarious trauma. 

Vicarious trauma refers to a broad range of cumulative changes in our thinking, emotion and behaviour as a result of empathically supporting those who have been through traumatic events. Trauma can result from many situations including natural disasters, acts of violence, financial hardship, homelessness and other life-changing circumstances such as cancer or COVID-19. Over time, there is potential for these experiences to grind people down and impact on health and wellbeing. 

Symptoms of vicarious trauma include: 

  • unwelcome thoughts of the trauma or traumatised person’s experience 
  • nightmares
  • social isolation
  • avoiding places, people, thoughts, or feelings that may be related to the traumatic situation 
  • hypervigilance about personal safety and safety of loved ones
  • increasingly pessimistic views of the world.

While these are normal responses to abnormal events, if vicarious trauma is unaddressed, it can affect a person’s health and relationships, and compromise their ability to work productively. Where employees encounter situations that result in second-hand exposure to trauma, organisations may see higher absenteeism, presenteeism or turnover. Team leaders could notice a loss of motivation and work ethic in their team members or, by contrast, team members may start to adopt a coping technique of working harder and longer hours.

There are multiple factors that can increase or decrease a person’s likelihood of developing vicarious trauma-related symptoms. It’s important not to assume that everyone will be impacted the same. Interest in this topic has grown within the area of health, law, emergency and frontline workers, as organisations play a vital role in how employees understand and respond to their vicarious trauma-related symptoms. Some researchers have voiced criticism that too much responsibility has been placed at the individual employee level to address vicarious trauma. Researchers and support services (such as wellbeing advisors, mentors, supervisors, and psychologists) are instead calling for organisations to address vicarious trauma as an occupational hazard and to proactively put measures in place to prevent its development and support their employees.

Organisations have a legal responsibility (under the Health and Safety at Work Act, 2015) to create well-functioning and healthy workplaces for their people. Trauma-informed organisational cultures take responsible and appropriate steps to protect the wellbeing of their people. This includes more emphasis on organisational changes that support better wellbeing like explicitly stating the risk of exposure associated with certain roles, job sizing, having a policy in place to limit exposure and systems in place for supervision or debriefing. Organisations should provide training opportunities for employees about the signs of vicarious trauma, as well as strategies to mitigate the risk so that employees can take more deliberate steps to monitor and address its effects. Proactive training serves as a reminder that your organisation values work-life balance and prioritises the wellbeing of its people.