Secondary Traumatic Stress
Definition of STS
Each year more than 10 million children in the United States endure the trauma of abuse, violence, natural disasters, and other adverse events. These experiences can give rise to significant emotional and behavioral problems that can profoundly disrupt the children’s lives and bring them in contact with child-serving systems. For therapists, child welfare workers, case managers, and other helping professionals involved in the care of traumatized children and their families, the essential act of listening to trauma stories may take an emotional toll that compromises professional functioning and diminishes quality of life. Individual and supervisory awareness of the impact of this indirect trauma exposure—referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS)—is a basic part of protecting the health of the worker and ensuring that children consistently receive the best possible care from those who are committed to helping them.
What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Accordingly, individuals affected by secondary stress may find themselves re-experiencing personal trauma or notice an increase in arousal and avoidance reactions related to the indirect trauma exposure. They may also experience changes in memory and perception; alterations in their sense of self-efficacy; a depletion of personal resources; and disruption in their perceptions of safety, trust, and independence.
A partial list of symptoms and conditions associated with secondary traumatic stress includes.
Client care can be compromised if the therapist is emotionally depleted or cognitively affected by secondary trauma. Some traumatized professionals, believing they can no longer be of service to their clients, end up leaving their jobs or the serving field altogether. Several studies have shown that the development of secondary traumatic stress often predicts that the helping professional will eventually leave the field for another type of work.
Who is at Risk?
The development of secondary traumatic stress is recognized as a common occupational hazard for professionals working with traumatized children. Studies show that from 6% to 26% of therapists working with traumatized populations, and up to 50% of child welfare workers, are at high risk of secondary traumatic stress or the related conditions of PTSD and vicarious trauma.
Any professional who works directly with traumatized children, and is in a position to hear the recounting of traumatic experiences, is at risk of secondary traumatic stress. That being said, risk appears to be greater among women and among individuals who are highly empathetic by nature or have unresolved personal trauma. Risk is also higher for professionals who carry a heavy caseload of traumatized children; are socially or organizationally isolated; or feel professionally compromised due to inadequate training.6-8 Protecting against the development of secondary traumatic stress are factors such as longer duration of professional experience, and the use of evidence-based practices in the course of providing care.
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Supervisors and organizational leaders in child-serving systems may utilize a variety of assessment strategies to help them identify and address secondary traumatic stress affecting staff members.
The most widely used approaches are informal self-assessment strategies, usually employed in conjunction with formal or informal education for the worker on the impact of secondary traumatic stress. These self-assessment tools, administered in the form of questionnaires, checklists, or scales, help characterize the individual’s trauma history, emotional relationship with work and the work environment, and symptoms or experiences that may be associated with traumatic stress.
Supervisors might also assess secondary stress as part of a reflective supervision model. This type of supervision fosters professional and personal development within the context of a supervisory relationship. It is attentive to the emotional content of the work at hand and to the professional’s responses as they affect interactions with clients. The reflective model promotes greater awareness of the impact of indirect trauma exposure, and it can provide a structure for screening for emerging signs of secondary traumatic stress. Moreover, because the model supports consistent attention to secondary stress, it gives supervisors and managers an ongoing opportunity to develop policy and procedures for stress-related issues as they arise.
Formal assessment of secondary traumatic stress and the related conditions of burnout, compassion fatigue, and compassion satisfaction is often conducted through use of the Professional Quality of Life Measure (ProQOL). This questionnaire has been adapted to measure symptoms and behaviors reflective of secondary stress. The ProQOL can be used at regular intervals to track changes over time, especially when strategies for prevention or intervention are being tried.
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Strategies and Prevention
A multidimensional approach to prevention and intervention—involving the individual, supervisors, and organizational policy—will yield the most positive outcomes for those affected by secondary traumatic stress. The most important strategy for preventing the development of secondary traumatic stress is the triad of psychoeducation, skills training, and supervision. As workers gain knowledge and awareness of the hazards of indirect trauma exposure, they become empowered to explore and utilize prevention strategies to both reduce their risk and increase their resiliency to secondary stress. Preventive strategies may include self-report assessments, participation in self-care groups in the workplace, caseload balancing, use of flextime scheduling, and use of the self-care accountability buddy system. Proper rest, nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction activities are also important in preventing secondary traumatic stress.
Although evidence regarding the effectiveness of interventions in secondary traumatic stress is limited, cognitive-behavioral strategies and mindfulness-based methods are emerging as best practices. In addition, caseload management, training, reflective supervision, and peer supervision or external group processing have been shown to reduce the impact of secondary traumatic stress. Many organizations make referrals for formal intervention from outside providers such as individual therapists or Employee Assistance Programs. External group supervision services may be especially important in cases of disasters or community violence where a large number of staff have been affected.
Both preventive and interventional strategies for secondary traumatic stress should be implemented as part of an organizational risk-management policy or task force that recognizes the scope and consequences of the condition. The Secondary Traumatic Stress Committee of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has identified the following concepts as essential for creating a trauma-informed system that will adequately address secondary traumatic stress. Specifically, the trauma-informed system must:
- Recognize the impact of secondary trauma on the workforce.
- Recognize that exposure to trauma is a risk of the job of serving traumatized children and families.
- Understand that trauma can shape the culture of organizations in the same way that trauma shapes the world view of individuals.
- Understand that a traumatized organization is less likely to effectively identify its clients’ past trauma or mitigate or prevent future trauma.
- Develop the capacity to translate trauma-related knowledge into meaningful action, policy, and improvements in practices.
These elements should be integrated into direct services, programs, policies, and procedures, staff development and training, and other activities directed at secondary traumatic stress.
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Secondary Traumatic Stress A Fact Sheet for Child Serving Professionals (2011) (PDF)
This fact sheet provides an overview of secondary traumatic stress and its potential impact on child-serving professionals. It also outlines options for assessment, prevention, and interventions relevant to secondary stress, and describes the elements necessary for transforming child-serving organizations and agencies into systems that also support worker resiliency.
Secondary Traumatic Stress A Fact Sheet for Organizations Employing Community Violence Workers (2016) (PDF)
This fact sheet is intended to support organizations employing community violence (CV) workers or interventionists in reducing the risk of secondary traumatic stress associated with this important work.
Secondary Traumatic Stress and Child Welfare Staff: Guidance for Supervisors and Administrators
This fact sheet provides an overview of what STS is within the context of child welfare workers. It includes information on how individuals experience STS, who is at risk, strategies for mitigating it, and for intervention.
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