Vicarious Trauma – A Silent Killer of Nurses

Are you a frontline nurse and feeling traumatised from caring for your Covid-19 patients? Do you suffer from insomnia, increased anxiety, depression and intrusive thoughts? These and other symptoms along with physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion may indicate that you’re suffering from Vicarious Trauma, also known as Secondary Trauma.

According to International College of Nursing (ICN) data, the proportion of nurses reporting mental health distress had risen from 60% to 80% since the first wave of the pandemic in many countries.

“We are witnessing a unique and complex occupational trauma that is affecting the global nursing workforce” saying ICN chief executive Howard Catton.

Vicarious Trauma is the dynamic interaction between the individual and their experience of the secondary trauma, and it results in physiological and psychological impacts very similar to what you’d see with PTSD, burnout and Compassion Fatigue.

How do nurses and caring professionals become affected by Vicarious Trauma?

The majority of nurses are drawn to their jobs through their empathy, compassion, and desire to help other people. However, when nurses are exposed to the suffering and trauma of others, they start identifying with their patient’s trauma and this has an impact on themselves.

Vicarious Trauma develops gradually, like water dripping on wood. You don’t realise how much damage it’s doing until the wood splinters apart. Vicarious Trauma has a cumulative effect on people, that’s why it’s difficult to recognize it till the impact is visible. 

By this time, successfully treating the trauma becomes more complex, so by recognising and addressing the symptoms of Vicarious Trauma earlier, you have a higher chance of obtaining a positive mental health outcome.

Who is in the highest risk category for being affected by Vicarious Trauma?

Newly qualified nurses at higher risk, because when they come into the profession initially, everything is exciting. But that initial enthusiasm wears thin when you’re providing quality care to patients every day. That’s when nurses start feeling worn down.

The initial excitement drops off, and reality sets in. So, those who are new to the profession in particular, need extra support. With the worldwide pandemic event, many nurses had to also learn new skills and procedures to look after critically ill Covid patients, as well as dealing with extra concern for their families and friends.

Who else is at risk of the effect of Vicarious Trauma?

Any workers who have a personal history of trauma can be more susceptible. Sometimes, those personal experiences of trauma may motivate people to join caring professions. In a way, what makes them really good at what they do — but this is also what puts them at risk. Dealing with other’s trauma in the workplace can bring flashbacks from their past, and contribute to the Secondary Trauma effect.

Experienced frontline workers could also be impacted by Vicarious Trauma. They may have done this type of work day in and day out for many years, but trauma silently accumulates within. People don’t often realise what is happening, because it’s in small doses each day so they don’t realize how affected they are until it gets to that tipping point. 

All of these risk factors result in more nurses than ever before suffering from Vicarious trauma, and it’s causing a significant long-term impact on their mental and physical health. Experienced nurses are leaving their jobs because they can’t deal with the impact that their jobs have on their home and family lives anymore. New nurses are doubting their career choices and looking to change their profession. 

Nursing Crisis Ahead

ICN studies predicts “Even if only 10% to 15% of the current nursing population quits because of the Covid-19 Effect, we could have a potential shortfall of 14 million nurses by 2030, which is the equivalent of half the current nursing workforce.”

Raising awareness that Vicarious Trauma is an Occupational Hazard faced by frontline workers is the first step in preventing it. To help prevent the spread, organisations need to implement better integration of mental health and well being as part of occupational health and safety management for the staff. 

If you are a nurse and think you’re affected by Vicarious Trauma, know that you’re not alone — help is available! 

If you think you’re being affected negatively by your job, and would like to know whether you may be suffering from the symptoms of Vicarious Trauma, then contact me for a FREE 30 minute one-to-one discovery call, and find out how I can help you today.