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Vicarious trauma a ticking timebomb: report

Vicarious trauma cannot be wished away.

That’s the reminder from the authors of a new report that explored the issue in a frontline community services setting.

“It needs to be managed, worked through and monitored by workers and clients alike," they said.

Staff interviewed for the work spoke of absorbing trauma “through osmosis” and said something as seemingly innocuous as a television advertisement would leave them in tears.

Workers described the ways trauma transfers and ‘sits in their bodies’ and how the sensory experiences associated with their job seeps in.

One worker put it this way:

I am not sure what you do with it, because even if you tell the facts to somebody, they are not sitting in the house smelling the smells or taking in visually what you are taking in…”

Lead researcher Dr Jonathon Louth from the University of South Australia said frontline workers are experiencing high levels of trauma that will impact their everyday lives well into the future.

“They represent a generation of veterans who are not returning from war, but from working within vulnerable communities and families within our cities, suburbs and regions,” Louth said. “This situation cannot and should not be ignored.”

While the report focused on community services workers – and warned that the sector’s rapid expansion means vicarious trauma is a ticking timebomb – nurses in other settings are also at risk, as described by clinical nurse specialist Ravina Raidu in an interview with Nursing Review.

“The emotional toll and exhaustion sustained from dealing with sensitive information, with the potential of developing debilitating conditions like depression and anxiety, means that vicarious trauma could be very costly for nurses professionally and personally,” Raidu said.

Louth and his team unpacked ways community service institutions can better recognise and respond to compassion-based stress.

“Ensuring ‘space between’ is a really important consideration, whether that’s time between clients, time for lunch, reflection or just chatting with colleagues,” Louth said.

“The boundaries between work and home also need to be protected, and workers need to be supported to better distinguish between their personal and professional lives.”

He added that within the workplace culture, celebrating wins can help develop resilience among workers.

The team also stressed the importance of peer relationships, though Louth added that care must be taken to ensure traumatic experiences are simply not offloaded onto other staff.

As one professional put it:

…on top of your own caseload you hear the stories of other cases, and I know for myself, I have been at points where, ‘Please don’t talk to me at all about anybody else because I have got enough here without hearing another story’.”

Louth added that there are also potential benefits for organisations in supporting staff in this area.

“There is strong correlation between compassion fatigue and work satisfaction, which suggests appropriate interventions and support encourage healthier, more efficient workplaces.”

The study was conducted by the University of South Australia, The Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise and Centacare Catholic Family Services.

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