As helping professionals, we experience stress and trauma on a daily basis. It is easy to become entrenched in our lives and professional work, often losing sight of what is contributing to our stress in the first place.

The first step to managing experiences of stress is to identify where it is coming from. The following Venn Diagram is a useful tool that can help you understand your risk factors.

This tool was developed by L. A. Ross, UCLA, F. Mathieu, TEND, and the Secondary Traumatic Stress Consortium, a group of researchers, trainers, practitioners, and advocates with a common goal to advance the field of secondary traumatic stress towards health. Special thanks to R. Cuellar, A. Hendricks, M. Clarke, and G. Sprang of the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network (NCSTN) for contributing the Socio-Cultural Context circle.


A venn diagram that outlines risk factors for helping professionals

Personal Circumstances

Everyone has a life story that shapes who they are. This life story can be a source of strength, comfort, and resilience during times of stress. However, this life story can also amplify work-related stress. 

Personal circumstances include such things as your history, coping style, and personality. These factors all impact your ability to manage stress. For example, many helpers are part of the “sandwich generation,” meaning that they care for both young children and aging parents. These are additional pressures outside of any work-related stress.

Factors related to your personal circumstances might include:

  • Having a history of childhood adversity
  • Navigating a challenging family crisis (such as a custody dispute, divorce, fertility crisis, financial stress, )
  • Providing care for someone with significant needs
  • Facing significant mental health or physical health challenges.

Helpers are not immune to pain in their own lives. Research shows that over 60% of helping professionals have a trauma history of their own (Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995). Consider the potential risk factors in your personal life – what elements are a source of strength? And what elements are a personal trigger?

Work-Related Grief & Loss

As helping professionals, experiencing grief and loss in the workplace can often be unavoidable.

Feelings of grief and loss can surface during situations of “unfinished business” – such as when a client passes away (anticipated or sudden), when a patient is discharged from treatment, or when a student is unexpectedly pulled from school.

We can also experience grief and loss during times of disruption in our workplace including:

  • A colleague or leader being fired, dismissed, retiring, or unexpectedly leaving the workplace
  • A partner agency closing
  • A beloved mentor retiring.

Have there been recent events in your workplace that caused you or your team to feel grief or loss? How do you process these events?

Direct Exposure

Experiencing direct exposure means that a traumatic event is happening directly to you or in front of you. During these situations, your personal safety might be at risk, someone might be seriously injured, or you might experience feelings of terror.

There are two potential sources of direct exposure:

Sources from your personal life including:

  • Being a victim of a crime
  • Seeking asylum in a new country
  • Experiencing a serious medical crisis.

Sources from your professional life including:

  • Being involved in a lock-down
  • Being threatened or assaulted at work
  • Experiencing a hate crime.

Does your work require you to work on the front line? What strategies do you have to prepare before, during, and after these events?

Indirect Trauma

Experiencing indirect trauma means that you experience a traumatic event second-hand. These experiences are often those that haunt you or seem to “hitch a ride with you” after hearing, seeing, or reading about them.

The terms secondary trauma, secondary traumatic stress (STS), and vicarious trauma all describe experiences of indirect trauma.

Indirect trauma can be caused by situations such as:

  • Working with a client, patient, or student who has experienced abuse and hearing details of their story
  • Reading case files
  • Witnessing graphic testimonies during a court case
  • Having colleagues debrief a traumatic case with you.

With the ready availability of social media and internet, many of us inadvertently add to our levels of indirect trauma every day. From distributing news coverage to graphic TV shows, this frequent deluge of trauma exposure can be insidious and hard to pinpoint.

Take a trauma-input survey of your work and personal life. What are you exposed to at work? Are there areas of unnecessary exposure in your personal life that you can reduce?

Empathic Strain

Empathic strain (also known as compassion fatigue)  is the profound emotional and physical exhaustion that can develop over the course of your career. It is a gradual erosion of all the things that keep you connected to others including your empathy and your hope – not only for others, but also for yourself.


Experiencing a high level of empathic strain might look like becoming dispirited at work, contributing to a toxic work environment, frequently breaking confidentiality or acting short-tempered with loved ones when they come to you with problems or need your help.

You might be at-risk for developing empathic strain if you:

  • Hear similar stories from your clients or patients all day long
  • Provide care to people who report feeling “stuck”, chronically overwhelmed or who never seem to get better
  • Have worked in the same position or field for many years.

Have you noticed a shift in your connection with others over the last few years? Do you have strategies to stay refreshed and refuelled? 

Systems Failure

This refers to the “red-tape” or roadblocks that prevent service providers from giving the best possible care or services to their clients, patients, or customers. Examples of systems failure include:

  • Large amounts of seemingly extraneous or tedious paperwork
  • Navigating long waiting lists or convoluted systems for your clients or patients
  • Disagreements about who should be eligible for a certain service
  • Failing to protect employees from physical and psychological harm.

One result of facing these numerous challenges can be moral distress. Moral distress occurs when we are told to do things with which we fundamentally disagree, are morally opposed to, or when our values conflict with what is required by law.

What hurdles do you face in your place of work? Are there times during which you ethically disagree with decisions made in your workplace or profession? Do you have a support network to discuss and process these constraints?

Working Conditions

This refers to how you experience or perceive your workplace including your relationship with your supervisor and colleagues, perception of fairness and appreciation (salary, rewards, benefits, vacation time etc.), and your workload. Poor working conditions are often a primary source of burnout.

The quality of your working conditions can be impacted by:

  • Your sense of trust in leadership
  • The quality and timeliness of communication within your organization
  • The degree to which you feel you are fairly compensated for the work that you do.

Think about the elements of your workplace that have nothing to do with client relations. If you could keep your current job, but work within a different team or organization, do you think that many of your work-related stressors would be gone?

Socio-Cultural Context

The term socio-cultural context refers to the intersection of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, historical trauma, and other elements that define your identity. These factors may come into daily collision with the socio-political factors of your community including the rules, regulations, laws, and political climate of where you live and work.

Factors related to socio-cultural context include:

  • A current crisis or cultural shift that personally impacts you and your way of life
  • Being asked to do tasks outside of your scope to work because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc.
  • A lack of representation of your race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc. within your workplace or profession.

Do you identify as belonging to a group that is experiencing discrimination? If so, has this identity led to experiencing oppression and/or silencing in the workplace?


Sources:

Cuellar, R., Hendricks, A., Clarke, M., Sprang, G., & the NCTSN Secondary Traumatic Stress Collaborative Group. (submitted 2021). Secondary Traumatic Stress: Understanding the Impact on Professionals in Trauma-Exposed Workplaces. Los Angeles, CA, and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

Pearlman, L. A., & Mac Ian, P. S. (1995). Vicarious traumatization: An empirical study of the effects of trauma work on trauma therapists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 26(6), 558–565. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.26.6.558

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