• Secondary traumatic stress can arise in individuals who dedicate a lot of their time caring for others, whether this is in work or personal life

  • Symptoms of STS include fatigue, low mood, lowered immune functioning and increase in self-destructive behaviours

  • If you are a carer, you can find therapists and counsellors who have experience and expertise working to support those in your position – start your search here 

Feeling unusually low, exhausted, irritable and generally flat? Unable to enjoy yourself as you used to? Drinking just a little too much? Fighting with your friends and family? Burning the dinner and kicking the cat!? Then you could be experiencing the early signs of secondary traumatic stress. Otherwise know as work-related stress, common syndromes of which are burnout and compassion fatigue.

What is secondary traumatic stress?

Secondary traumatic stress is the natural consequence of hearing about and experiencing traumatic events or stories from others and of being in working environments with ever increasing organisational demands.

Working with vulnerable individuals, experiencing their experiences, either through emotional and/or physical contact, can lead us into those very same feelings and moods. Add to this the demands of long working hours, increase in paper work and lack of peer support; the likelihood of developing STS becomes almost unavoidable without professional support.

Who is at risk?

In truth, anyone dealing with people, anyone involved in human relationships and anyone working long hours with a lack of peer support, insufficient training and limited psychological attention to mental wellbeing. These factors create a perfect breading ground for the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress.

Burnout and compassion fatigue have a devastating impact on both our working relationships and our personal lives. These cumulative changes have not just an impact on the employee but on the organisation and the service provided to service users.

What are the signs?

Burnout is cumulative and creeps up on us over a period of time. Compassion fatigue is much more acute. We can be ok one minute and flying off the handle the next. Common symptoms are:

  • Apathy
  • Anger
  • Low mood
  • Low morale
  • Lack of motivation
  • Breakdown in communication
  • Lowered immune symptom
  • Reduced general functioning
  • Increase in self-destructive behaviours
  • Problems in relationships with others

As we struggle to separate work from home, colleagues from friends, time at play to time at work we become increasingly detached, agitated, introspective and we find ourselves less and less able to keep a balance in our lives.

Constantly giving to others leaves us emotionally depleted with little for ourselves or our families. When this happens we need to find ways in which we replenish those emotional banks. We need to feed ourselves.

What helps?

  • Talking to another person for support. Reflective supervision groups provide safe, confidential, peer group settings in which to discuss and off-load the psychological aspects of the working environment
  • Getting enough rest
  • Eating stress busting foods
  • Maintaining a balanced work / play schedule
  • Taking up a hobby
  • Moderate exercise
  • Developing self-awareness
  • Developing communication skills
  • Tell the boss
  • Tell the family
  • Seek help and support

What doesn’t help?

  • Using alcohol
  • Bottling up feelings
  • Violence and conflict
  • Blaming others
  • Working too much
  • Risky behaviour
  • Avoiding talking to others
  • Withdrawing from pleasant experiences

Secondary traumatic stress will affect all of us at some time or another. So rather than ignore it, be one step ahead. Helping others can be hugely rewarding and it can be hugely exhausting. And to be the best you can be to those in need, you need to be the best you can be to you.

There is no shame in seeking help. You may be surprised, when you start to talk, others will follow.

Further reading

Compassion fatigue in the caring professions

Suddenly I am an everyday carer

What is burnout?

Caring for someone with dementia

How stress manifests in different parts of the body

Work-related mental health issues: how therapy can help