Working with people who are experiencing or have previously experienced abuse and trauma means that family violence practitioners often respond to complex and challenging situations.
Working in the family violence sector can be incredibly rewarding. Taking a trauma and violence-informed approach means we must also recognise the impacts on practitioners of continuously responding to family violence and working within the context of structural oppression and social injustice (Reynolds, V. 2011).
This may result in experiences of vicarious trauma, distress, dissatisfaction, hopelessness, ethical dilemmas, and mental or physical health problems. This is an important occupational health and safety issue for specialist family violence practitioners and should be addressed through a range of strategies (Code of Practice: Principles and Standards for Specialist Family Violence Services for Victim Survivors).
Recognising the signs and symptoms of vicarious trauma
‘Vicarious trauma’ describes the cumulative effects of exposure to information about traumatic events and experiences, potentially leading to distress, dissatisfaction, hopelessness and serious mental and physical health problems (Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, DV Vic & DVRCV, 2021).
The effects of vicarious trauma vary from person to person. For some people, there may be a wide range of signs and symptoms, while others may experience problems in one particular area of their lives.
Common signs of vicarious trauma:
- difficulty leaving work at the end of the day, noticing you can never leave on time
- taking on too great a sense of responsibility or feeling you need to overstep the boundaries of your role
- frustration, fear, anxiety, irritability
- intrusive thoughts of a client’s situation or distress
- disturbed sleep, nightmares, racing thoughts
- problems managing personal boundaries
- loss of connection with self and others, loss of a sense of own identity
- increased time alone, a sense of needing to withdraw from others
- increased need to control events, outcomes, others
- loss of pleasure in daily activities.
Recognising the signs and symptoms of burnout
‘Burnout’ describes the prolonged physical and psychological exhaustion that workers can experience from continuous exposure to structural oppression and social injustice at work.
A 2017 Victorian family violence workforce census found that almost one third of specialist family violence practitioners were considering leaving their job due to burnout.
Burnout can sometimes be misinterpreted as the result of working with clients who are experiencing family violence and trauma. However this framing fails to centre the political and structural nature of family violence work, nor does it acknowledge the transformation, strength and resilience that comes from working alongside people with experiences of abuse and trauma, which can be understood as vicarious resistance (Reynolds, V. Riel Dupuis-Rossi, R & Heath, T. 2021).
The effects of burnout vary from person to person. For some people, there may be a wide range of signs and symptoms, while others may experience problems in one particular area of their lives.
Common signs of burnout:
- physical and emotional stress
- low job satisfaction
- feeling frustrated by or judgmental of clients
- feeling under pressure, powerless and overwhelmed
- not taking breaks, eating on the run
- unable to properly refuel and regenerate
- frequent sick days or mental health days
- irritability and anger.