Vicarious Trauma - how to know, notice and manage the effects of helpline work

Annika Howard
Vicarious Trauma - two people sitting on a couch looking downcast

Regularly hearing about or responding to traumatic events can take its toll on those people who work in helping professions and supportive jobs.

Our members tell us that they are seeing an increase in the complexity and volume of calls and contacts they receive and that mental health and suicidal ideation is a common thread that runs through these contacts, regardless of the area the helpline operates in.

Doctors, nurses, paramedics, members of the emergency services, social workers, counsellors, psychotherapists, helpline workers and helpline volunteers are all at risk of suffering vicarious trauma. Charity fundraisers can also be at risk from vicarious trauma and support staff who talk to and hear from people who have been through traumatic and harrowing experiences.

What is vicarious trauma?

Vicarious trauma is a term for the emotional changes a person can experience when helping people who have traumatic stories to tell.

It may be that you have taken a call, read something or seen images and they stick in your head and you keep thinking about it. Or you often find yourself reflecting, outside of your work, on the upsetting and emotional things that you’ve heard from people contacting your service.

The accumulative effect of hearing and responding to traumatic events in their day to day work can negatively impact on social behaviours, emotional wellbeing, physical health, behaviour and cognitive reasoning.

Vicarious trauma can also be known as secondary traumatisation, secondary stress disorder or insidious trauma. It can lead to compassion fatigue or burnout, and the symptoms can be like those of first-hand trauma experiences.

What are the signs of vicarious trauma?

If you, or someone you know, is in a position that puts you at risk of suffering vicarious trauma there are signs and symptoms to watch out for:

  • Loss of hope
  • Exhaustion
  • Negative outlook
  • Anxiety
  • Hypervigilance
  • Emotional numbness
  • Guilt
  • Anger and cynicism
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Addictions

Vicarious trauma impacts on behaviours, you may notice behavioural changes, emotional changes, physical changes and cognitive changes.

How can you avoid the risk of vicarious trauma?

Confidence and skills in call handling are key for an effective helpline and the wellbeing of helpline teams. Helpline teams need to have the skills to respond to and manage emotionally challenging calls and contacts to their service. It’s essential that call handlers, helpline coordinators and managers are aware of the symptoms and have well organised support structures in place. And, individuals working on helplines need to have the time and space to practice self-care with regular down time between calls.

Learn more about vicarious trauma

If you would like to learn more about vicarious trauma, our training, aimed at service managers and coordinators, explores the implications of compassion fatigue research within helplines, enabling you to establish and review strategies and procedures to effectively manage and address the personal and professional consequences of vicarious trauma. Using recent research and data around helpline trends in call complexity and volume you'll learn the key risk factors of vicarious trauma, the risks it poses to your helpline team, helpline service and service users. We can also offer this as bespoke, onsite training that is tailored for your organisation.

Find out more about our vicarious trauma training.

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