“Not All Work Stress is Created Equal” by Kim Juhas

Not All Work Stress is Created Equal:  The Difference Between Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Traumatic Stress, Burnout, and Compassion Fatigue

For those in the helping professions, it is important to understand that helpers can be affected by exposure to others’ stress and traumas.  Further, it is important to understand the different ways in which helpers can be affected.

Vicarious trauma refers to the change in one’s worldview and core beliefs that can result from exposure to another person’s traumatic story.  Secondary traumatic stress refers to a set of symptoms that mirror the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder that can result from this type of exposure.

Burnout can occur when chronic perceived work demands outweigh perceived resources, and is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of ineffectiveness.

Compassion fatigue refers to the natural behavior and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatic event experienced by another human being and is referred to as the “cost of caring.”   It can result in a gradual disconnect to one’s empathy, hope, and compassion.

While all of these types of stress are harmful to one’s work, it is important to understand that the constructs can behave in different ways, as suggested by comparing the following two research studies on secondary traumatic stress and burnout.

Bober and Regehr (2006) studied 259 mental health therapists, and found a negative correlation between the therapist’s age and secondary traumatic stress symptoms.  They found a positive correlation between secondary traumatic stress symptoms and time spent counseling trauma survivors.

Galek et al (2011) examined secondary traumatic stress and burnout in 331 professional chaplains, and found similar results regarding secondary traumatic stress.  Interestingly, the trends for burnout did not match those of the secondary traumatic stress.  An increase in the number of years in the profession did not correlate with increases in secondary traumatic stress, but there was a positive correlation between years in the profession and burnout.  Just as Bober and Regehr found, as the number of hours spent counseling patients with traumatic experiences increased, secondary traumatic stress increased.  However, the amount of hours spent listening to traumatic material did not affect burnout levels. 

Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue are all detrimental to the work done in the helping professions.  However, it is important to understand their differences. For example, if a trauma counselor exhibits symptoms of burnout, it may not help to limit the exposure to traumatic material, but rather, it may be helpful to examine the amount of the counselor’s overall workload. 

Armed with the understanding that these types of stress exist, those in the helping professions  can  examine the degree to which their work affects them.  Armed with the knowledge that these constructs can behave differently, helpers can work to reduce these types of stress more effectively.