Managing Vicarious Trauma



Date of Publication
June, 2018

Conversations about how to integrate support for advocates that mitigates vicarious trauma have become common within our organizations, but the need to put these conversations into practice is greater than ever. While widespread coverage about the prevalence of sexual violence has gained traction with the #MeToo movement, resources for organizations haven’t seen much of an increase to meet the need. This requires managers and executive directors to find creative, low-cost ways to support those who are supporting survivors.

One of the best strategies to mitigate vicarious trauma is the simple act of talking about it as a natural part of working with survivors.

Everyone who works on behalf of survivors should expect to feel the impacts of vicarious trauma at some point. This doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong or not well enough; it doesn’t mean that they haven’t yet healed from any previous trauma they experienced themselves; and it certainly doesn’t mean they won’t have solid careers in advocacy. When we normalize the occurrence of vicarious trauma within our policies and practices, we give individual employees permission to talk openly about how and when it’s showing up for them. In fact, the simple addition of stating this in personnel policies can have a powerful, positive impact for all staff. It provides even more clarity when organizational policies define vicarious trauma, how it might show up, and what supports exist at the organization when it does. Bringing it up in interviews and new employee orientation also sets a precedent that vicarious trauma will be discussed and an expected part of the job. This can be done with questions such as, “How do you address your own vicarious trauma when or if you’ve experienced it?” or “What do you need from your supervisor when or if you experience vicarious trauma?” These questions and conversations should happen for all staff within our organizations — whether it’s the development staff, administrative support, volunteer coordinators, or advocates.

Supervisors should also keep in mind that vicarious trauma isn’t just a side effect of advocacy; it’s also a natural occurrence for folks who have lived experiences of oppression.

Staff of color, those with disabilities of any kind, and LGBTQIA+ folks experience trauma because they live in a society where they experience discrimination and oppression regularly. Managers should take the time to consider how these lived experiences contribute to vicarious trauma and speak openly about their understanding of this. One incredibly tangible way to support advocates from these marginalized communities and/or identities is to offer independently-facilitated peer learning groups on paid time, such as a group for advocates of color and/or staff who are LGBTQIA+. Additionally, we know that many people drawn to advocacy work enter it because of their own personal experience with sexual and/or domestic violence. Supporting other survivors becomes an integral part of their own healing, and it’s also sometimes a source of their own trauma responses. Organizational support becomes even more critical and necessary for all staff who show up to work with their own experiences of trauma.

Asking about the impact of vicarious trauma within individual supervision meetings is also important.

In fact, providing regularly scheduled supervision itself can help advocates manage their burnout and stress, and give space to focus on their professional development. The more consistent positive interactions with a supervisor are, the more likely an individual staff member will actively consider talking about what they need to be more satisfied with their job. Supervision becomes an important place where vicarious trauma can be identified, discussed, planned for, and addressed. Conversations about vicarious trauma should never be linked to the evaluation of work performance, which could feel punitive and like a negative consequence of sharing this personal information. Trauma informed supervision becomes a place where trust is built, and where an employee feels comfortable asking for help. When talking about vicarious trauma, keep the focus on the employee’s needs and concerns, not the supervisor’s. Also, always remember that an individual employee may not feel comfortable sharing everything that’s going on for them linked to their personal vicarious trauma, and that’s okay. It’s most important that supervisors invite these conversations and provide their support in the way that feels comfortable for individual employees.