Self-care: understanding how to prevent or recognise vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue

Vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout are real; if you work with vulnerable communities you are at risk.

When we work with traumatised people, we can inadvertently slip into focusing on their distress at the expense of our own wellbeing. But this is not helpful to us or the people we are supporting.

People at risk of this include:

  • carers
  • teachers
  • child protection and case workers
  • counsellors
  • anyone who is listening to traumatic histories of others or having to empathise all the time, such as refugee support workers and volunteers.

We need to care for ourselves as well as the people we are helping. A big part of this is understanding the emotional risks of the work we do and putting some strategies into place to mitigate them.

Let’s start by looking at definitions.

Vicarious trauma

This occurs when you are exposed to the traumatic experiences of another person. It can happen either by witnessing the traumatic experience, for example seeing a child constantly beating another child in your care and feeling powerless to intervene, or hearing about it, for example listening to a client sharing graphic details of their traumatic experiences.

Compassion fatigue

This occurs when your ability to care, often through empathy, becomes exhausted. You have no more compassion or empathy in your ‘tank’.

Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue can coexist or occur independently. Both can lead to burnout.


Burnout is when your emotional, physical and mental state has reached a point of exhaustion. This is usually caused by excessive and prolonged stress that has not been managed or recognised early enough. It is often accompanied by feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to function normally in your day-to-day tasks.

Indicators of vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue

While everybody’s experience is different, the list below provides some guidance. If you’ve been experiencing any of these for a prolonged period of time, it’s time to reach out and get help:

  • difficulty empathising with your clients
  • increased feelings of cynicism, sadness or seriousness
  • increased irritability
  • reduced sense of personal accomplishment
  • avoiding situations you perceive as potentially dangerous
  • having no time or energy for self or others
  • procrastination
  • an increased sensitivity to violence and other forms of abuse, for example when watching television or a film
  • feeling overwhelmed by emotions such as anger, fear, grief, despair, shame, guilt
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • de-personalisation (feeling detached from oneself)
  • low self-esteem
  • feeling profoundly distrustful of other people and the world in general
  • disruptions in interpersonal relationships
  • sleeping problems
  • substance abuse.

Everybody will feel some of these at different points in their life, however, when a combination of some of these indicators becomes your default way of functioning day to day, something is not right.

What can you do for yourself and others?

Preventative strategies and early intervention are the always better than reaching a crisis and needing to heal from that.

Preventative strategies

Preventative strategies include:

  • getting regular reflective professional supervision, individual and group where possible
  • ensuring you have strong peer networks that you can call upon when you need that extra support
  • having a life outside of work that involves family, friends and non-work-related activities
  • getting regular yearly check-ups with your GP
  • having a regular exercise routine that gets your heart pumping a little harder than your daily norm (seek medical guidance if you are uncertain about your health and ability to do exercise)
  • undertaking activities that are good for the mind as well as the body, such as yoga, tai-chi, meditation
  • making time for yourself, particularly if you are a carer: have a life so you can heal a life!

If you recognise the beginnings of any indicators from the list above DO NOT IGNORE them:

  • reach out within your professional and private networks for support
  • touch base with your direct supervisor and let them know what is happening
  • be mindful of any ‘voices’ in you that say, ‘get on with it’ or ‘toughen up’.

If you feel what is happening is too private to discuss with your colleagues or networks, consider engaging a therapist or counsellor. Your organisation may have an employee assistance program (EAP) that provides free counselling. Take advantage of it, that’s what it’s there for.

Crisis management

If you reach a crisis point it is likely those around you will see this. There is no shame in not managing, but there might be great risk to yourself and others if you don’t take action.

You may need to:

  • let people take charge if you cannot
  • seek support from your supervisor and have them negotiate with management regarding time off
  • seek professional support from a qualified and registered therapist or counsellor.

Return to work when you have clearance from your health professional. Keep in mind that it’s beneficial get back into your work or carer-support routine as soon as possible, even if part-time to begin with.

Everybody’s business

Health and wellbeing is everybody’s business. If you notice a colleague experiencing symptoms, speak out if they won’t or can’t do so for themselves. You do not want to be the person who is left saying ‘if only I had done something, taken some action’.

Some places help

If you are in crisis call a helpline:

If you are not in crisis you can:

  • contact your GP for a referral
  • ask a colleague or a friend for a referral
  • contact your organisation’s employee assistance program (EAP).

If you are in Melbourne or Canberra, Australian Childhood Trauma Group now has a counselling and therapy clinic, Edgar Lynch Centre, offering support services to carers, workers and the general public.

phone: 1300 034 504


Prevention: put preventative strategies in place

Early intervention: watch for early warning signs, in you and your colleagues

In a crisis: reach out and get help immediately

Have you found some preventative strategies particularly effective? Have any to add to our list? Comment below and share the knowledge! We are all in this together.

Gregory Nicolau, Founder / CEO

Australian Childhood Trauma Group