Vicarious trauma

Vicarious traumatization is the emotional result of working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. Vicarious trauma develops over time and happens because you care, empathize and feel committed to helping.

The detriment of vicarious trauma is the risk of having a profound shift in outlook where your fundamental beliefs and perspectives are altered, and potentially damaged through repeated exposure to traumatic material. If not addressed, vicarious trauma could result in compassion fatigue and/or burnout.

We have outlined the signs of vicarious trauma below as well as suggestions for support.

Who may be at risk

Vicarious trauma is often seen in people who work in humanitarian professions. The culture of this work can sometimes be characterized by self-neglect, toughing it out or denial of personal needs. Some of the other risk factors include people who:

  • Tend to avoid problems or difficult feelings.
  • Have experienced trauma themselves.
  • Are experiencing stress outside of their work life.
  • Do not have adequate social supports.
  • Hold unrealistic expectations of work and boundaries.
  • Do not understand cross-cultural differences in expressing distress and asking for help.

Warning signs of vicarious trauma

To help you identify potential situations of vicarious trauma, we have gathered a list of signs to pay attention to:

Physical signs

Behavioural signs

Emotional/psychological signs

Coping with vicarious trauma

If you're working in a humanitarian profession, such as supporting survivors of sexual exploitation or trafficking, it's important to be intentional about self-care. There are several steps you can take to help treat vicarious trauma, as well as reduce its negative impact. For information on how your agency can better support staff and prevent vicarious trauma, please refer to the self-care section in our model of care resource. There are also steps you can take yourself:

  • Set realistic goals and boundaries for yourself – not responding to calls or emails after 9 p.m. unless it's an emergency.
  • Debrief with colleagues or a trusted supervisor –  you do not need to do this work alone.
  • Be aware there’s potential to spread vicarious trauma through informal debriefs, so be conscious of providing and receiving fair warning, and ensuring consent is established before sharing traumatic details.
  • Do a self-review of how you best cope.
  • Find healthy and appropriate outlets:
    • Set aside time for reflection, meditation, journal writing.
    • Exercise.
  • Treat and reward yourself for the hard work you do.
  • Get enough rest, quiet time and sleep.
  • Utilize your agency’s assistance program.
  • Seek professional help if you're having trouble managing on your own.