MODULE FOUR | Understanding and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

PART SIX | Working Protectively: Preventing and Managing Vicarious Trauma on the Job

Most of what has been written about vicarious trauma has focused on how you can help prevent and manage vicarious trauma by taking care of yourself outside work (e.g., spending time with family and doing other things you enjoy). However, the way you think about your work and do your job has a big impact on your experiences with vicarious trauma. This section looks at how you can help prevent and manage vicarious trauma on the job.

How you think about your work

How you think about your work plays a big role in helping keep you healthy and balanced. Here are some important questions to answer.

  1. Why do you do this work? Why did you choose to become a humanitarian worker when you started out? Why do you do it now? Knowing the answers to these questions can help connect you with a sense of meaning and purpose, and remind you that you can choose a different path if you want to. It may also highlight important differences between then and now that could help you rediscover your original motivation or begin a search for new inspiration.
  2. Do you know what you’re doing in your work, and why? Knowing how to do your job well and why you believe it’s making a difference can help you understand how your work fits into the bigger picture of humanitarian work and the mission of your organization. This provides a framework that can help you remember that your actions have purpose, and that they may be contributing to positive change even when you can’t see change taking place. If you have trouble with this question, you may want to ask for information from your agency about its overall mission, its mission in the setting where you are currently working, and any signs they see of change or progress.
  3. How do you measure success in your work? Do you have a long list of specific goals you must accomplish to feel like you’ve succeeded, or do you feel like you’ve succeeded if you give your best every day regardless of whether everything on your to-do list gets done? Focusing on giving your best (even if on some days, it’s just the best you can do that day) rather than only on outcomes can help give you a healthier perspective, remind you of what you can and can’t control, and open up various ways for you to feel successful in your work.
  4. What can you control in your work? Where can you make choices about your work content, structure, and schedule? What can you control about your work and its outcomes, and what can’t you? You can burn up energy and motivation by focusing too much on things you can’t change. Knowing what you can control can also prevent you from blaming yourself for things that are outside your control or (on the other hand) feeling like a victim. Even in circumstances in which you have very little control over your work life, you can often choose your attitude, whether to smile at others, what to wear each day. These small choices can help make the lack of larger choices more bearable.
  5. What are the costs and rewards of this work, and how are you personally changing? Humanitarian work can be demanding, and being changed by the work at some level is inevitable. Understanding this can help you stay alert to ways (both positive and negative) in which you are changing. Knowing what you find rewarding about your work can also help you focus on the positive. It can be easy to focus on all the problems and risks associated with humanitarian work. But even in the most demanding situations you can often see examples of determination, ingenuity, compassion, faith, resilience, and even heroism. Look for and support these attitudes and behaviors, both in yourself and in others.
How you think about work plays a big role in keeping you balanced and healthy and helping prevent and manage vicarious trauma.

Think about…

  • Take some time to make some notes or discuss the answers to each of the sets of questions in items 1 through 5 above.
  • Which of these sets of questions do you feel like you struggle the most with (maybe you don’t know the answers to those questions, or the way you normally think about work in that area is unhelpful). Why?
  • Which of these question areas do you feel you are strongest in? Why? How does your thinking in that area help protect you from vicarious trauma?

How you do your work

Healthy thinking is good on its own, but even better if it’s linked to healthy practices at work. Here are some suggestions about how you can work in ways that help prevent and manage vicarious trauma.

  • Change some of the things that bother you: Change some of the things that you can control that bother you (e.g., if your work place is grim and dirty, clean it up so that it doesn’t depress you).
  • Intentionally make choices when you can: Make choices about things you can control (e.g., when to break for lunch).
  • Connect with (or disconnect from) people: If you work mostly alone, find ways to connect with people during the day (e.g., take five minutes to ask how someone’s weekend was). If you work mostly with people, take small breaks, including time out from conversation during which you let your mind go to positive, secure, or comforting thoughts. This will help you remember to see people as individuals rather than tasks.
  • Try something different at work: Look for opportunities to do something different from your usual work (e.g., write an article, offer to teach a workshop, collaborate with a colleague on a project, ask someone new for assistance). If you are in a job that’s very routine, try changing the order in which you do your usual tasks.
  • Write about your experiences at work: Even making brief notes about your experiences at work can be helpful. It can be a good way to record something important and move it out of the center of your attention. Over time it can also help you learn about your job and yourself.
  • Find ways to retain or regain perspective during the day: Find little ways to connect briefly with things or thoughts that nurture or refresh your spirit and help you see work in the context of the bigger picture. Some things people often find helpful are looking at pictures of loved ones, praying or meditating, imagining themselves in a refreshing place, and breathing exercises. These activities can help you calm your body as well as ground your mind.
  • Invest in professional networks and relationships with colleagues: Knowing people who do similar work and sharing resources, strategies, and stories help bridge the sense of isolation that is often a part of vicarious trauma. Sharing some non-work experiences with colleagues can also help you feel more like a whole person at work.
  • Find more than one healthy habit: One good strategy will not be enough to protect you effectively from vicarious trauma. Make sure you are practicing several different healthy working habits.
Healthy thinking is good on its own, but even better if it’s linked to healthy practice at work. Make sure you are practicing several different healthy working habits.

Think about…

  • Which of the practices above do you already do well? How?
  • Which of the practices above do you not do so well? Why are these hard for you?
  • What other healthy working habits can you think of that may help you lessen and manage vicarious trauma in your job?
© Headington Institute 2008