How Workplaces Can Be Better Equipped to Deal with Vicarious Trauma

Curly haired therapist listening to a young adult.

Photo Credit: SDI Productions

Maintaining good mental health is important to leading a long and healthy lifestyle. Over the years, we have seen an increase in attention to how trauma creates poor mental health, but it is far rarer to discuss the profound effect secondary or vicarious trauma can have on an individual’s well-being. This Mental Health Awareness Month, we are focusing on how vicarious trauma can impact the workplace and what employers can do for the employees experiencing it.

The term “Vicarious Trauma” is defined by the American Counseling Association as, “the emotional residue of exposure to traumatic stories and experiences of others through work; witnessing fear, pain, and terror that others have experienced; [and] a preoccupation with horrific stories told to the professional.” One might be aware of the negative mental health impact exposure to trauma has on certain high-stakes professions such as law enforcement, firefighters, therapists/psychiatrists, emergency medical services, and emergency dispatchers, but vicarious trauma can impact an array of other professions too.

Rachel Clements, co-founder and director of psychological services, Centre for Corporate Health (CFCH) notes that bank workers, “whose jobs were previously not considered risk averse from a psychological point of view, found themselves suddenly hearing from customers with distressing stories about deaths of livestock and ruined businesses.” Journalists who frequently are exposed to and disseminate traumatic, heartbreaking, and disturbing stories experience emotional fallout. Lawyers are often sought out by clients seeking justice for traumatic experiences. Educators and other professionals responsible for the welfare of minors are often mandated reporters, meaning that they are legally obligated to report child abuse. The absorption of these troubling stories and the act of reporting itself are highly stressful for these professionals. What this shows is that vicarious trauma is an issue that crosses an array of industries, and as such employers should be equipped to meet the mental health needs of their employees so that they can perform their jobs well and learn how to leave the stresses of work at work. Below are some tips that can help your organization become a vicarious trauma-informed workplace.

Reach Out to RALIANCE for a Policy Review

Consider reevaluating your policies and procedures to uncover how your organization currently responds to trauma and what areas there are to grow. RALIANCE would be proud to work with you to find ways to modify your policies and procedures to make them more equitable to all your colleagues.

Learn from the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) developed the Vicarious Trauma Toolkit (VTT) to lay out, “organizational responses to work-related exposure to trauma. While some resources in the toolkit may be useful to individuals, the VTT is intended to provide organizations with the tools they need to fulfill their responsibility to support staff and become more vicarious trauma-informed.” Disseminate this toolkit to relevant leadership on your team to learn more about methods to counteract vicarious trauma.

Consult OVC Compendium of Resources

Aside from the toolkit, the OVC compiled the Compendium of Resources; a list of resources, organizations, and research pieces that surround vicarious trauma across fields, occupations, and circumstances. This could be a valuable way for you to find if there’s any sort of industry-specific resource or contact that deals with vicarious trauma that is most relevant to your workplace.

Review OVC Guideline Series

Furthermore, the OVC has created a guideline series that, “summarize[s] existing research and actionable recommendations for becoming a vicarious trauma-informed organization.” The areas it focuses on include: Employee & Volunteer Assistance Program, Family Support, Human Resources, Peer Support, and Supervision. Other supportive tools for organizational instructors and a leadership series can also be found on this portion of their website.

Ensure your EAP is Vicarious Trauma-Informed

As mentioned in the previous section, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are a wonderful way to assist employees with a variety of needs. If your workplace already has an EAP, check with them to ensure that they are familiar with vicarious trauma and what the needs of employees experiencing it may be. Please refer to the Associated Employee Assistance Providers’ article about their vicarious trauma curriculum for more information.

Provide Mental Health Coverage and Maintain Contacts with Other Local Mental Health Support Services

In the past, we have laid out the importance of providing a good healthcare program. It should always be understood that mental health care is just as much of a priority. For professions that experience vicarious trauma, we recommend investing in coverage that provides the best opportunity for employees to maintain good mental health, and to also familiarize themselves with local mental health services and counselors so that that information can be made publicly available to any employee who decides they’d like to find someone to talk to.

Emphasize Self-Care

Perhaps most importantly, all employers should emphasize to their employees that no job or workload takes precedence over their peace of mind. Self-care practices can include taking a short break, taking a walk, meditation, and breathing exercises. This in-work self-care should also be preceded by plenty of sleep, healthy eating habits, and maintaining regular contact with loved ones. Please review the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services’ (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Technical Assistance Center (DTAC) video, “Stress Management Techniques, Healthy Coping Strategies, Breathing Exercise” to learn more.

Vicarious trauma is a serious issue and, while work can be the cause of it, a workplace can also be a part of the solution. This Mental Health Awareness Month, we look forward to seeing this discussion continue, so that we can all go on a path towards mental health equity.

RALIANCE is a trusted adviser for organizations committed to building cultures that are safe, equitable, and respectful. RALIANCE offers unparalleled expertise in serving survivors of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse which drives our mission to help organizations across sectors create inclusive environments for all. For more information, please visit


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