By: Jessica R. Kendall, JD, Senior Manager

Jessica R. Kendall is a Senior Manager at ICF, where she works on issues related to vulnerable children and families.


The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.



In my August 2018 In Focus post, “Being Trauma-Informed is a Universal Best Practice,” I shared research that shows the high prevalence of trauma and adversity among families who touch social service systems. I discussed the effects trauma may have on mind, body, and brain—and how community action agencies play an integral role in mitigating them through trauma-informed strategies.

Being trauma-informed, however, cannot start and end with our clients.

It must also account for the toll our work takes on each of us. For those who work in helping industries, whether they be social, health, or victim services, there can be a cost to caring.

This is more than just burnout. Burnout is the exhaustion we may feel by being overwhelmed or dissatisfied in any job type or function. Vicarious trauma (VT) is something different.

VT is where a helping professional is unable to refuel and he or she experiences an emotional and physical erosion that shifts the way they view the world. It is a common occupational hazard among professionals working with individuals who have experienced trauma. It can reshape the culture of an organization, just as it can reshape an individual’s own world view. Traumatized staff are less likely to be able to effectively perform their job functions and will commonly experience higher rates of turnover.

The nomenclature (burnout versus VT) may not be important to those doing the work, but the distinctions between the experiences should be. As frontline workers, supervisors, and leaders in community action agencies, being able to identify the signs and symptoms of VT, among staff or ourselves, is the first step in building VT-informed practices that can support staff across an organization.

There are a range of interrelated factors that may lead one to be at risk for VT. They span from individual coping styles to social and professional supports. They may include one’s current or past experiences, the culture of the organization in which they work, and the type of function they perform in relation to working with (or on behalf of) traumatized clients. Important signs/symptoms of VT include:

  • Hypervigilance
  • Negative coping – smoking, drinking, acting out
  • Panic symptoms – sweating, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness
  • Aches and pains
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Anxiety, sadness and/or depression

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), U.S. Department of Justice has numerous resources for organizations interested in becoming VT-informed. They suggest that to become VT-informed, organizations may:

  • Support open discussions of VT between staff and supervisors.
  • Provide training/support to employees about VT, professional and personal self-care strategies.
  • Create opportunities for employees to vary their duties and alleviate heavy caseloads.
  • Rotate frontline and coverage responsibilities.
  • Offer debriefings, peer or professional support groups, planned social interactions to foster connections among employees.
  • Administer employee evalua­tions that include questions pertaining to VT and assess employees’ perceptions of which organizational efforts to reduce the impact of VT are helpful.


To learn more about how to become VT-informed, check out this organizational readiness guide, also from OVC, as well as this practice guide from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

If our hope is to support clients as they forge their own paths toward resilience, we too must acknowledge the affects supporting them may have on us and our organizations. To build respect, empathy, and avoid re-traumatization requires that as we outstretch our hand in support of others, we also look inward and support ourselves.