Results from indirect exposure to trauma or traumatic content. It can be caused when one is subjected to some other living being’s suffering. Can occur unexpectedly and suddenly.

The main types of secondary trauma are vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. We mention burnout here as it is a result of working with vulnerable populations or from poor mental health.

Who is at risk?  

Everyone who works with survivors of trauma or vulnerable people is at risk of being impacted negatively by the varied effects of secondary trauma.

Secondary trauma is generally divided into two. We talk about vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, both of which can result in burnout.

Secondary trauma is usually a result of:

  • Volunteering
  • Interpreting for vulnerable people
  • Interpreting distressing content
  • Hear a first-hand account of a traumatic event;
  • Viewing graphic news reports, and frightening T.V shows;
  • Viewing crime scene evidence;
  • Working in a courtroom;
  • Anyone working with prisoners or detainees
  • Anyone working with survivors of trauma and violence


However, as with primary trauma, there are certain vulnerability factors that would increase the likelihood of experiencing the negative effects of secondary trauma.

These factors are important to keep in mind, especially for interpreters of languages from small communities. Many interpreters in these situations may have been a refugee or asylum seekers themselves, or know one. This would make them even more susceptible.

Vulnerability factors

  • Prior traumatic experiences;
  • Tendency to avoid feelings
  • Having difficulty expressing feelings;
  • Lack of an effective self-care strategy
  • Past history of Mental illness
  • Poor boundaries   

(Bancroft, Allen, Green, & Feuerle, 2015) (OVC)

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can be found in people who work or volunteer in a helping profession.

Particularly, where their work involves continued encounters with people who are suffering deeply.

It is often a result of aiding and working with a traumatised, suffering or vulnerable person(Figley, 1995, p.7). The phenomenon is connected to the relationship that develops between the vulnerable person and the  “helper’, in that the vulnerable person’s traumatic or unpleasant experience triggers a reaction in the “helper” on a variety of levels. 

It is said that a person’s capacity for empathy and their capability to participate in or form a therapeutic connection, are what have the biggest effects on compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue has been linked to having high levels of empathy and having an empathic response to another creature’s suffering or pain (Adams, et al., 2006; Figley, 2002b).

We have come to understand that it does not only affect those in helping professions. We also see it in someone who is acutely aware of societal issues yet feels unable to fix them People who actively give of their time or participate in charitable work could feel as though they have used up all of their resources and that the challenges the world faces have no end. The cries for assistance could make them feel helpless or overpowered (PsychologyToday).

  • Commonly caused by a need to protect oneself from suffering;
  • Drains you of feeling and caring.

(Sudden 2019; AIS 2017)


Vicarious trauma

Vicarious trauma can result in symptoms and experiences similar to those of primary trauma. It will quite often be classified as work-related trauma, as it is one of the outcomes of repeated exposure to distressing content.

Each person will react differently to vicarious trauma.

Factors that increase the risk of vicarious traumatisation:

  • Negative coping strategies 
  • Lack of emotional support
  • Unrealistic expectations of oneself as a helper 
  • Empathy
  • The individual’s characteristics: a previous personal history of abuse and/or personal stressors
  • Personal expectations
  • A need to meet all patient needs
  • Insufficient training/inexperience


It is a result of repeated exposure to another’s traumatic experiences, the symptoms intrude on daily life.

Examples of which are: listening to clients recount their trauma as well as reviewing photos, videos, and case files.

Office for Victims of Crime (OVC)

Warning signs

  • Having difficulty falling asleep and having nightmares 
  • physical symptoms such as headaches, motion sickness, nausea, and lightheadedness
  • Conflict in personal relationships
  • Neglecting your own needs
  • withdrawing and isolating yourself 
  • self-medication
  • Reduced empathy and sensitivity as a result of hopelessness and helplessness in the face of suffering 
  • being overworked and exhausted by work obligations 
  • feeling emotionally distant, numb, and detached
  • Worry, depression, rage, and irritation have all increased 
  • loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities 
  • difficulty focusing and making decisions
Physicians Wellness Hub

What about Burnout?

Initial theories on burnout have highlighted the helping professional-care receiver relationship as a major factor in burnout development. However, now we know this is not entirely the case.

Burnout is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and decreased fulfilment that can occur in those with demanding work/life duties.It is motivation-based, causing emotional and psychological exhaustion related to an individual’s work(Sudden 2019; The Lookout 2017).

It usually develops gradually as a result of prolonged stress and can arise in any career field.

 Researchers have identified seven work-life issues that may result in burnout.

  • Person-job mismatch
  • work overload
  • lack of control
  • lack of reward
  • lack of community
  • lack of fairness
  • value conflict
(Leiter & Laschinger, 2006Leiter & Maslach, 2004Maslach & Leiter, 1997)ss