What is Professional Trauma and Fatigue?
During my MSc research project back in 2016, 'Professional Trauma and Fatigue' was the way I decided to practically describe the collection of concepts that can affect your health and wellbeing when you work with other people. How listening to their stories, their experiences of pain and trauma, can have a dramatic effect on you as a practitioner.
If you’ve ever had to write within a word count, you’ll know that using four words “Professional Trauma and Fatigue’ instead of eight words, ‘stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and secondary trauma’, can make a big difference to how much you can fit into your article or paper!
I want to stress that by scooping these concepts together I am not intending in any way to minimise or reduce the complexity of each of them individually. What I wanted to do was collectively describe the different ways that you may be impacted if you work with other human beings.
‘Looking Through a Lens of Terribleness’
‘Looking Through a Lens of Terribleness’ is the title of my research, a very small qualitative study exploring the experiences of front-line practitioners working with those who have experienced domestic abuse. The title came from one of my participants, as it perfectly described how her thoughts and feelings were being skewed to such a point that she was looking at everything from a negative and exhausted perspective.
'The focus of the study was to explore with practitioners what helped them to cope with the emotional onslaught of working with trauma, at this point predominantly domestic abuse. Who cares for the carers, helps the helpers and supports the supporters?'
Through my continued work as a counsellor and psychotherapist, working with private clients and those referred through local authorities, being a part of SelfCare Psychology, and training alongside co-founder Kate, it has become clear that the risks to us as practitioners were not isolated to a client base within domestic abuse. It was also clear that the risks are certainly not limited to social work, counselling, and specialist domestic abuse practitioners.
Here at SelfCare Psychology we have adopted this umbrella term as it perfectly leads into our Five Pillars of Protection from Professional Trauma and Fatigue. This is the model that we have designed based on our research, training, and literature reviews. Obviously, this also incorporates over 25 years of mine and Kate’s experiences of working in human services, including front line, management and training, and more meaningfully from you the practitioners.
There is very little doubt that all of us as human beings are potentially at risk of stress and burnout. However, when we are listening to and caring for others, especially those who experience trauma, then this can place us at a greater risk of harm, especially if we’re not aware of how to mitigate against it, and this is where our work gets important.
We will be investigating and blogging more around the different elements of professional trauma and fatigue, but at this moment we would just like you to be open to the idea that if you’re working with others then you may be affected by this. Awareness is key!
If we don’t know about these ideas, then we can’t look out for them either in ourselves or others, and our experience suggest that many of us working in human services have either not heard of the concepts at all, or have a vague awareness of them, but do not understand in any depth their potential for harm. We can’t mitigate against something if we don’t know what it is.
Although our initial experience was within the counselling social work and domestic violence field, it became incredibly obvious that professional trauma and fatigue is relevant to anyone working in human services. We’re using the phrase Human Services as we have genuinely struggled to find any other title that includes the many of us who work with and listen to others. The ‘helping professions’ is sometimes used, but we feel that human services clearly encompasses those who we wish to support as an organisation.
The term human services is used more readily in the US, and we understand it to be a huge and varied field describing many different professionals and roles both paid and voluntary. The core thread defining human services for us, is the centre which runs through responsibilities we have when we are supporting other human beings, with needs, and particularly in times of crisis. We are listening to their stories, experiencing their traumas and aiming to guide them forward to improve wellbeing, enable autonomy and move towards wellness independence and balance.
This vast sector draws together many different job titles and descriptions, but to start us off we include roles in social care and health, emergency services, education, social workers, counsellors, doctors, nurses, carers, teachers, care workers, blue light responders, police, support workers, housing, law, advice. . . You can see where we’re going with this, there may not be a definitive list, but if you feel that your interaction with others is a part of human services, I would suggest that you’re probably right.
Whist our work combines the concepts of professional trauma and fatigue, it is also equally important to explore the positive concepts around working with others and trauma, Compassion Satisfaction and Post Traumatic Growth, and the how helping others can actually be incredibly rewarding, as long as we take care of ourselves. So, I think we can leave this post here, on a more positive note.
Mitigating the risks
We will write further on the different aspects of professional trauma and fatigue, the extent, the risks and what we might do to mitigate against them, as the majority of practitioners aren’t aware. We will consider if this is due to a lack of education, training or professional development. We will also examine if this is because as an employer it might feel easier to ignore the risks, because if we address them, we may need to do something about them. However, we firmly believe that the five pillar model is an efficient, cost effective and sustainable model to work with.
It is not ok!
Quite simply, we believe that: "it is not acceptable to lose talented, highly trained and phenomenally committed professionals in human services because we’re not encouraging them to look after themselves or each other."
Do join us on social media, our work is all about you, your experiences, your safety and keeping you doing the jobs that you love, the jobs that can make such a difference to those that you work with. We’re guessing that’s why you do what you do, to make a difference, but remember, we need to look after ourselves too.
As Dr. Naomi Remen says, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”