Secondary Traumatic Stress (Compassion Fatigue)

Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is emotional duress resulting from exposure to trauma experienced by others, generally within a workplace context.  Hearing or reading about traumatic events that others experienced can have an impact.  Studies show that up to 50% of child welfare workers are at high risk of secondary traumatic stress because their work involves the essential act of listening to trauma stories.  Exposure to trauma is a risk of the job of serving traumatized children and families.

STS can reduce professional function and quality of life.  Signs of STS are similar to those found in individuals who experience a traumatic event directly and include:

  • Re-experiencing personal trauma
  • Increased arousal and avoid­ance reactions
  • Changes in memory and perception
  • Disruption in perceptions of safety, trust and independence
  • Hopelessness, inability to listen, anger, cynicism, sleeplessness and chronic exhaustion
  • Physical indicators can include headaches, stomachaches, lethargy, constipation

Secondary traumatic stress must be addressed on personal, professional and agency levels.  Personal strategies include nurturing healthy relationships outside of work; seeking activities that provide joy and meaning, knowing your limits and taking time for self-care.  Physical self-care, such as sleep, rest, exercise and good nutrition is essential.

Professional strategies start with recognizing the occupational hazard of STS.  Child welfare workers must realize they are at increased risk by the very nature of the job.  Additionally, many are drawn to child welfare because of their own personal trauma, which is another indicator of vulnerability to STS.  Child welfare professionals need to focus on strengths and resilience and use supervision to talk out emotions.  Building an internal support team of colleagues allows workers to talk about cases with those who understand and can validate their experiences and the need to talk about it.

Agencies can address STS by owning their responsibility for the well-being of the staff.  A supportive environment where workers experience safety and trust is essential.  Flexible scheduling and adequate personal time off helps workers deal with stress.  Heavy caseloads and caseloads with a high number of traumatized children are shown to contribute to STS.  Balanced caseloads can ease the stress.  Workers need accessible supervisors along with a team-oriented approach to successfully manage their risk of STS.

Some emerging practices to deal with STS are cognitive behavioral interventions and mindfulness training.  Agencies can seek out formal training for staff and also make referrals to employee assistance programs.  Individuals and supervisors can make use of self-assessment tools to gauge workers’ susceptibility to STS.  One such assessment, Compassion Fatigue Self-Test, is available at