Treating Trauma or Simply Stress?

By Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD

Creative Commons [Flickr, August 15th 2008-Crispy, August 15, 2008]
Creative Commons [Flickr, August 15th 2008-Crispy, August 15, 2008]
We have highlighted research concluding that secondary traumatic stress (STS) and vicarious trauma (VT) contribute to clinician burnout, but is burnout simply a factor of work-related stressors?   In a 2009 study using an Australian sample, researchers Devilly, Wright, and Varker did not find that exposure to a client’s traumatic experiences affected STS, VT, or burnout [1].

A total of 152 participants in the study were selected randomly and included 125 psychologists, 15 psychotherapists, 6 clinical social workers and other mental health clinicians.  Participants completed a victimization history, depression, anxiety and stress scales, a burnout inventory, a secondary traumatic stress scale, a vicarious trauma scale, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and a perceived social support scale.  Work-related stress included questions measuring 4 dimensions: (1) a supportive workplace; (2) workload demands; (3) conflicting demands; and, (3) clarity of expectations.

Using multiple regression analysis, the researchers found that work-related stressors best predicted therapist distress. Predictors for affective distress included:

  • Duration of time as a mental health professional,
  • Beliefs about their safety, and
  • Beliefs about their intimacy with others.

The researchers did not find any significant difference in vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress when they compared participants with a history of trauma with participants that did not have a history of trauma.  The researchers also noted that participants who reported a high level of exposure to trauma cases also reported a greater history of personal trauma.  Unexpectedly, groups that reported low levels of trauma cases reported significantly higher levels of work stress.

When experiencing work-related stress as a mental health clinician you can thoughtfully consider the stress that you are experiencing and ask:

  • Do you believe that you are safe in the workplace?
  • Are you developing and maintaining intimate (and supportive) relationships?

Whether you have a history personal trauma or not, and whether your work entails exposure to vicarious trauma or not, attending to these factors may reduce the possibility of burnout and increase the quality of your workplace experience.


[1] Devilly, G. J., Wright, R., & Varker, T. (2009). Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or simply burnout? Effect of trauma therapy on mental health professionals. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(4), 373-385. doi:10.1080/00048670902721079

This post was written by Jay Morse & Heidi Radunovich, PhD, members of the MFLN Family Development (FD) team which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, and on LinkedIn.

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