*The translation of this article in French and Portuguese has been made through machine translation and has not been edited yet. we apologise for any inaccuracies.
Vicarious trauma is a type of trauma that healthcare professionals may experience as a result of their exposure to the trauma and suffering of their patients. It is also sometimes referred to as secondary trauma or compassion fatigue.
While healthcare professionals are trained to provide compassionate care to their patients, the emotional toll of caring for those who are experiencing trauma can have a negative impact on their own wellbeing and ability to provide adequate care.
Some personal symptoms of vicarious trauma may include:*
- Sleep disturbances and/ or nightmares
- Appetite changes
- Trouble concentrating
- Panic symptoms (sweating, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, etc.)
- Aches and pains
- Weakened immune system
- Self-harm behaviours and/or negative coping strategies
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Lowered self-esteem and increased self-doubt
- Feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, fear, loneliness, guilt, or numbness
In recent years, the issue of vicarious trauma has become increasingly recognised as a significant challenge facing healthcare professionals. In addition to the emotional toll it can take on healthcare professionals, vicarious trauma can also have a negative impact on patient care and healthcare delivery. As such, it is important for healthcare organisations and employers to be aware of the issue and take proactive steps to address it.
Vicarious Trauma Impact on Healthcare Professionals
The negative impacts of vicarious trauma on healthcare professionals can be profound and can affect their personal and professional lives in various ways, including:
- Vicarious trauma can lead to feelings of exhaustion and burnout in healthcare professionals due to the constant exposure to trauma and suffering, which can take a toll on their emotional well-being and resilience.
- Healthcare professionals may experience symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues as a result of vicarious trauma, which can affect their personal and professional lives.
- The emotional toll of vicarious trauma can make it challenging for healthcare professionals to form and maintain healthy relationships with colleagues and loved ones, which can further exacerbate their mental health issues.
- Healthcare professionals may become desensitised to the suffering of their patients, also named compassion fatigue, which can lead to a decrease in empathy and compassion, and ultimately affect the quality of care they provide.
- Healthcare professionals may start to feel disillusioned and lose their sense of purpose in their work due to vicarious trauma, which can lead to decreased job satisfaction and productivity.
Overall, the impacts of vicarious trauma /secondary trauma on healthcare professionals can have far-reaching consequences, affecting not only their personal and professional lives but also the quality of care they provide to their patients. It is essential for healthcare organisations and employers to take steps to mitigate the impact of vicarious trauma on healthcare professionals and ensure they are adequately supported and protected.
Vicarious Trauma Impact and Impact on Patient Care
In addition to the negative impact on healthcare professionals, vicarious trauma can also impact patient care and healthcare delivery.
Patients rely on healthcare professionals to listen to their concerns, engage in meaningful communication, and provide compassionate care. When healthcare professionals are affected by vicarious trauma, they may struggle to do so. Patients may feel unheard or uncared for, which can result in decreased satisfaction with the healthcare system and poorer health outcomes.
Some workplace symptoms of vicarious trauma can include:*
- Low motivation and dissatisfaction
- Increased errors and decreased quality
- Avoidance of job responsibilities
- Over-involvement in details/perfectionism
- Withdrawal and isolation from colleagues
It is important for healthcare organisations and employers to recognise and take steps to prevent and address vicarious trauma among their employees. Likewise, healthcare professionals must take steps to care for their own mental health and well-being, including seeking support and resources when needed. By addressing vicarious trauma, we can help improve healthcare professionals’ welfare and ensure they are able to provide the compassionate care patients need.
Ways to Mitigate Vicarious Trauma in Healthcare
Fortunately, there are many initiatives currently underway to mitigate the issue of vicarious trauma in healthcare professionals. Some hospitals and healthcare organisations have implemented peer support programmes or counselling services to provide emotional support to healthcare professionals. Others have established mindfulness and wellness programmes to promote self-care and resilience. In some cases, there is the implementation of organisational policies to prevent and address vicarious trauma, such as limiting the number of traumatic cases a healthcare professional can work on in a given period.
As the recognition of vicarious trauma in healthcare professionals increases, there is a growing focus on prevention and support. Some organisations are also exploring the use of technology to provide more immediate and accessible support to healthcare professionals. For example, some mental health apps are being developed specifically for healthcare professionals, offering resources and tools to help manage stress and trauma.
Healthcare organisations and employers have a responsibility to ensure their employees are able to provide quality care to their patients while maintaining their own mental health and well-being. Some important actions to consider are:
- Providing access to mental health resources and support, such as counselling services and employee assistance programmes
- Offering training and education about vicarious trauma and its impacts
- Promoting a culture of self-care and empathy within the workplace
- Encouraging open communication between healthcare professionals and their supervisors
- Providing opportunities for healthcare professionals to take breaks and avoid burnout
There are several steps that healthcare professionals can take to address vicarious trauma and reduce its negative impacts. These include:
- Educating themselves about vicarious trauma and its impacts to recognise the signs and symptoms of it in themselves and their colleagues.
- Engaging in self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and therapy.
- Seeking out peer support and talking with colleagues who have experienced similar challenges.
- Taking breaks and setting boundaries to prevent emotional exhaustion and burnout.
- Advocating for institutional support to address vicarious trauma and help foster a supportive work environment, encouraging effective communication and teamwork.
Ultimately, addressing vicarious trauma in healthcare professionals will require a collaborative effort from healthcare organisations, employers, and healthcare professionals themselves. By working together to promote a culture of support and prioritise mental health and well-being, we can help ensure healthcare professionals are able to provide the best possible care to their patients while maintaining their own health and well-being.
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