Understanding Secondary Trauma, Compassion Fatigue, and Burnout


Secondary Trauma, also known as Vicarious Trauma, may be experienced by those in high-stress helping professions who have frequent contact and interactions with people suffering from post-traumatic stress, acute stress, and who are exposed to violent, dangerous situations. These interactions can be either direct or indirect, but exposure to the traumatic experience or the narrative of that event results in the professional developing secondary traumatization and the associated symptoms. Professions frequently exposed to vicarious not trauma include (not limited to) police officers, EMTs, firefighters, dispatchers, counselors/therapists, doctors and nurses, lawyers, caseworkers/social workers, military personnel, and victim advocates. 

Compassion Fatigue, while similar, encompasses a broader range of reactions to working in a helping role, and includes professionals and caregivers who develop high levels of stress or anxiety as a result of their work assisting others in need. Compassion Fatigue can often occur suddenly and cause significant disruption in occupational and social functioning. These sudden changes may additionally lead to self-doubt and confusion, exacerbating already severe stress. For a self-scored assessment on whether or not you may be experiencing compassion fatigue, check out the Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQOL) at http://proqol.org/ProQol_Test.html

Burnout, often used interchangeably with Compassion Fatigue, actually differs in a few small but significant ways from its counterpart. Often, professionals dealing with burnout have developed the stress and frustration over time, and may be struggling with feelings of wanting to avoid their clients and/or co-workers altogether. Additionally, burnout is not limited to those in helping fields and can occur within any working profession. While individuals in high-stress positions and toxic or dysfunctional work environments are at greater risk for burnout, anyone can experience the associated resentfulness, avoidance, and frustration. 

Whether you think you or someone you know may be suffering from vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, or burnout, seeking a qualified mental health professional can help you assess, manage, and ultimately move toward a more positive, satisfied, and healthy relationship with yourself, your work, and your loved ones. 

Jamie Hidalgo