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Work in Child Welfare can be especially stressful and difficult. Two important concepts related to this work are “Secondary Trauma” and “Compassion Fatigue.” I want to explore these terms and what researchers are learning about them.

Secondary Trauma

This is emotional stress that comes from listening to first hand trauma experiences and stories of someone else. Professionals who are regularly exposed to and are expected to empathize with people telling such stories often have such secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma is found among child welfare workers, but is also frequently found with therapists, nurses, psychologists, doctors, teachers, police officers, animal welfare workers, elder care and hospice workers, and paramedics.

Compassion Fatigue

This is the (typically gradual) lessening of compassion over time. Individuals with compassion fatigue initially show less empathy, decreasing work performance, and increased detachment.

Individuals suffering from long-term secondary trauma and compassion fatigue can show a variety of symptoms including

  • Sleeplessness
  • Nightmares
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches and other physical ailments
  • Chronic muscle tension
  • Constant stress and anxiety
  • Pervasive negative attitudes and perspectives
  • Decreased productivity
  • Inability to focus
  • Confusion
  • Feelings of incompetency and self doubt
  • Mood swings
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Isolation, withdrawal
  • Changes in drug or alcohol consumption
  • Gradual limiting of contact with family and friends
  • Replaying events in one’s mind over and over

What can be done to help?

Secondary trauma and compassion fatigue are leading contributors to high turnover rates in child welfare. In another blog post we list 12 Workplace Stress Busters that can be very useful to lower stress and mediate the effects of the work we do on a daily basis.

In addition to those daily stress busters, there are other things one can do to lower the impact of secondary trauma and decrease chances of compassion fatigue.  Here are some of the most prominent:

  • Take vacation days and do things unrelated to your job.
  • Talk with colleagues about how the work is affecting you.
  • Seek out a support group
  • Diversify the caseload if possible
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Get connected with community events and groups of interest
  • Practice mindfulness; in this context this means being aware when you get cynical or start to just not care
  • Seek therapy

Have you found other ways to lower stress and decrease secondary trauma and compassion fatigue? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Please tell us at info@DownsConsultingGroup.com. Thank you!


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Dr. Chris Downs has devoted much of his professional career to improving services and outcomes for older, at-risk youth. Chris is President of The Downs Group LLC, based in Seattle and has the pleasure of working with many talented professionals in child welfare and allied areas including his company Associates.