- Learn how program staff can be affected by working with children and families who have experienced trauma
- Identify the differences between typical work stress and burnout
- Consider how your program can better support staff and prevent burnout
Take a moment and think about a time when, on your day off, you thought about a stressful occurrence or conflict at work. What was the scenario that stuck with you? How did it feel to be thinking about work on your day off? Were you able to move past these thoughts and enjoy the rest of your day?
As a program staff member, you develop close relationships with the children and families you serve. You likely chose this field because you enjoy helping children. However, those who work in helping fields such as child care or education are at risk of secondary traumatic stress and burnout. In this lesson, you will learn how staff may be affected by working with children and families experiencing trauma.
What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines secondary traumatic stress (STS) as the emotional distress experienced by an individual after hearing about the traumatic experiences of another. As a staff member, you may work with children and families who have endured or are currently experiencing significant traumas such as homelessness, child abuse, sexual assault, community violence, or substance abuse. Secondary trauma is a risk you face as a result of engaging empathically with a child that has experienced trauma. Because you work closely with children and their families, it’s possible that you can be negatively impacted by exposure to these experiences as well.
Secondary traumatic stress aligns with other terms you may have heard before, including vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, or compassion fatigue. It can touch the lives of any individual working in a helping field with survivors of trauma. The negative impact of secondary traumatic stress has been explored in-depth in several service profession roles such as doctors, nurses, firefighters, law enforcement, disaster relief workers, and social workers.
While secondary traumatic stress can affect any person who works closely with survivors of trauma, some factors may place an individual at an increased risk of experiencing the negative effects of secondary traumatic stress. Some risk factors identified by the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit include:
- Prior unresolved traumatic experiences
- Feeling socially isolated at work or at home
- A tendency to avoid feelings
- Difficulty expressing feelings
- Being a newer employee
- Lacking a supportive process for discussing traumatic content
Johnathan recently moved to a new state and started a job at the local preschool. He hoped to make new friends at his job since he doesn’t have his support system nearby. However, he has had trouble connecting with his coworkers and often feels left out of their interactions. Today, a youth in Johnathan’s program described to him a detailed account of severe physical and sexual abuse that the child endured. This was difficult for Johnathan to hear because he too can relate to some of the experiences the child described, but he has not shared with anyone. What are some factors that may place Jonathan at an increased risk of experiencing secondary traumatic stress?
The Child Trauma Academy indicates that there are several reasons why professionals who work closely with children that have experienced trauma are at increased risk of experiencing secondary trauma including:
- Child care providers, educators, mental health professionals, social workers and other professionals tend to use empathy as a tool when working with children which increases their vulnerability to internalize the child’s pain and emotional suffering
- Professionals working with children repeatedly listen to the same or similar traumatic stories without enough recovery time
- Unresolved personal trauma is triggered when working with a child that has experienced a similar trauma
- When children are maltreated it evokes strong emotions and makes individuals question their sense of humanity
- Professionals in the field are often isolated and high turn over rates increases stress on individuals working in the field
- A lack of resources and supports to address issues related to secondary trauma
Similar to the symptoms of trauma exposure that you learned about in Lesson One, individuals who experience secondary traumatic stress may exhibit a wide range of symptoms that may affect several areas of their lives. Potential symptoms that an individual suffering from secondary traumatic stress may experience include the following (Treatment and Services Adaptation Center):
|Emotional||Anger, sadness, feeling numb, detached, overwhelmed, or hopeless|
|Physical||Headaches, stomach aches, having low energy, sleeplessness, fatigue|
|Behavioral||Changing routine or engaging in self-destructive coping (e.g., substance abuse)|
|Professional||Lack of motivation, tardiness, low job performance or job tasks and responsibilities|
|Cognitive||Difficulty concentrating or making decisions, reliving the imagery of the trauma, excessive worry|
|Spiritual||Questioning the meaning of life, lacking self-satisfaction|
|Interpersonal||Withdrawing from coworkers, friends, or family, irritability with friends and family|
It’s clear that working closely with children and families who have survived trauma can take a significant toll on overall well-being. Because the costs of caring for others can be physically and psychologically exhausting, it’s important to identify symptoms early on to prevent burnout.
What is Burnout?
Secondary trauma can occur following a single exposure or interaction with a child or adult that has experienced trauma whereas burnout is a condition caused by participating in emotionally demanding situations and becomes progressively worse overtime. Experiencing secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue can contribute to child care professionals becoming burned out in their field. Burnout is defined as the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that occurs over time from dealing with excessive amounts of stress (Burnout Prevention and Treatment). Exposure to prolonged stress in the workplace may result in feelings that affect your levels of interest and motivation and even your outlook on life. It’s important to note that stress causes one to feel overwhelmed, whereas burnout causes one to feel empty. While experiencing stressful situations in the workplace is normal and expected at times, constant exposure to stressful situations without feeling satisfaction from work can result in burnout over time. The table below outlines some key differences between stress and burnout:
|Characterized by over-engagement or over-commitment||Characterized by disengagement or isolation|
|Emotions are over reactive||Emotions are dulled or numbed|
|Feelings of urgency or hyperactivity||Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness|
|Loss of energy||Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope|
|Leads to anxiety disorders||Leads to detachment and depression|
|Primary effect is physical||Primary effect is emotional|
|May kill you prematurely||May make life seem not worth living|
(Helpguide.org Burnout Prevention and Treatment, 2018)
Think back to Johnathan…
It’s been several weeks since Johnathan heard of the traumatic physical and sexual abuse experienced by a youth in the program. Since then, Johnathan has continually been working with children and their families who are dealing with significant chronic issues of homelessness, community violence, and parental deployment. Without having anyone close to talk with, Johnathan has been dealing with these issues on his own and is struggling with feelings of depression and hopelessness. Even outside of work he hasn’t found any joy in any of his hobbies. Do you think Johnathan is dealing with typical work stress or starting to show signs of burnout?
Again, some degree of stress is a normal experience in the workplace; however, chronic stress, exposure to individuals that have survived trauma, and feeling a lack of support can altogether contribute to feelings of burnout.
Now that you are familiar with how secondary traumatic stress or burnout can affect child care professionals working with families that have endured trauma, it’s important to reflect on how the workplace can support individuals or promote healthy behaviors. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network outlines some suggestions for how to prevent secondary traumatic stress and burnout at an organizational or program level:
Listen as experts discuss how program administrators can support staff members who are at risk of secondary traumatic stress. Do your program leaders or fellow staff members talk about secondary traumatic stress? How can you help build awareness of this risk?
Protective Strategies for Caregivers
There are specific things you can do to protect yourself from secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue:
- Speak about and maintain a positive attitude towards children and families
- Utilize the support of coaches and mentors
- Take advantage of opportunities to learn more about ways to support children and families who have experienced trauma
- Recognize when you or your coworkers may show signs of secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue
- Understand your own needs and respond appropriately
- Balance your work life and personal life
- Do your part in making your program atmosphere a positive and encouraging place to work
- Utilize the breaks that are built into your day to do something calming and enjoyable
Use the Assessing Program Support checklist to ensure your program supports staff in implementing protective strategies. Discuss your thoughts with a coach, trainer, or administrator.
Review the Secondary Traumatic Stress fact sheet and discuss this information with a coach, trainer, or administrator.
Bundy, R. (n.d.). Understanding compassion fatigue. Retrieved from https://rebeccabundy.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/handout-for-compassion-fatigue.pdf
Burnout Prevention and Treatment: Techniques for Dealing with Overwhelming Stress (2018). Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm/
Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (2017). Retrieved from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/compassionfatigue.html
Mathieu, F. (2007). Running on empty: compassion fatigue in health professionals. Retrieved from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/RunningOnEmpty.pdf
National Center of Safe Supportive Learning Environments: Secondary Traumatic Stress and Self-Care Packet (n.d.). Retrieved from https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/sites/default/files/Building_TSS_Handout_3secondary_trauma.pdf
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/secondary-traumatic-stress
The Vicarious Trauma ToolKit (n.d.). Retrieved from https://vtt.ovc.ojp.gov/what-is-vicarious-trauma#VTT_Model
Treatment and Services Adaptation Center (n.d.). https://traumaawareschools.org/