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Vicarious trauma and safeguarding yourself at work

For Safeguarding Adults Week, a Diversion Keyworker explains the signs of work-related vicarious trauma and how to protect yourself from it.
When you think of safeguarding, you probably automatically think of safeguarding clients. However, due to the nature of the work we do at Advance, it’s also crucial that staff safeguard themselves.

Whether you have your own lived experience or not, it’s important to be trauma-informed with clients and other members of staff as well as yourself, so that you can build resilience against the impact of vicarious trauma.

Also known as compassion fatigue or secondary post-traumatic stress, vicarious trauma describes what can happen when you’re indirectly exposed to trauma. Exposure can occur in several ways, including by listening to someone talk about a traumatic experience or viewing traumatic images and videos. It’s normal to be affected by these things, but it shouldn’t cause long-term harm to your mental and physical wellbeing.

Vicarious trauma can lead to:
  • Ongoing feelings of anger and sadness about the client and their trauma
  • Difficulty maintaining boundaries, such as over-extending yourself, doing more than your role requires and feeling overly responsible
  • Errors in judgement
  • Oversensitivity to criticism
  • Numbness, detachment and apathy towards your job, colleagues and clients
  • A sense of stagnation or lack of enthusiasm
  • Bystander guilt, shame and feelings of self-doubt
  • Avoidance of certain people because of the effect it’s having on you
  • Unhealthy preoccupations, for example not being able to stop thinking about a client or work outside of working hours
  • Feelings of hopelessness

The effects of vicarious trauma can be really difficult to deal with, so prevention and safeguarding yourself and others should be an ongoing priority. Some of the ways you can mitigate against the risk of vicarious trauma include:

  • Being aware of the signs
  • Prioritising your own self-care and looking after your physical and mental wellbeing by ensuring you eat healthily, exercise and get enough sleep and rest
  • Pacing yourself and taking regular breaks – go for a walk outside at lunchtime and take five minutes to make a hot drink after a difficult session or call
  • Switching off and relaxing after work by listening to music, cooking, watching TV or reading
  • Finding something meaningful to do outside of work – take the time to understand and tend to your own needs
  • Checking in with people you trust and talking to someone about your feelings and experiences, such as a friend, colleague, manager, clinical supervisor or therapist
  • Booking in  time off – ideally at least once every three months
  • Finding fun and creative activities to enjoy in your spare time, like pottery, puzzles and board games, baking or sports
  • Actively scheduling time out from exposure to difficult content
  • Being realistic about what you can accomplish
  • Creating and maintaining boundaries, including with clients – be friendly but not friends
  • Trying to focus on solutions to any issues instead of dwelling on the negatives

Being aware of vicarious trauma and the steps you can take to help alleviate it creates a better work environment for yourself and others. It also allows you to enjoy your job while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

For more information on how to protect yourself from work-related vicarious trauma, check out the Action Trauma website here.  

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