Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C.C. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological Services, 11, 75-86.
The concept of job burnout was originally developed to document negative consequences of work related exposure to stressful situations experienced by various professionals such as police officers, paramedics, emergency room clinicians, etc. Job burnout can be defined as emotional exhaustion and disengagement. However, recent research on mental health providers has extended the focus beyond job burnout caused by direct exposure, to investigate the consequences of indirect exposure through contact with people who have experienced traumatic events, exposure to graphic trauma content reported by the survivor, or exposure to people’s cruelty to one another. These are sometimes referred to as secondary exposure or indirect exposure to trauma. Professionals indirectly exposed to trauma through their work could experience consequences or symptoms that have been conceptualized as secondary post-traumatic stress, vicarious traumatization, and compassion fatigue, which can collectively be called secondary traumatic stress (STS). STS may include three clusters of symptoms: intrusive re-experiencing of the traumatic material, avoidance of trauma triggers and emotions, and increased physical arousal. Compassion fatigue was defined as a substantial reduction in the mental health providers’ empathic capacity. Cieslak and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta analysis to assess the strength of associations between job burnout and other psychosocial consequences of work-related indirect exposure to trauma in professionals working with trauma survivors. They reviewed 41 studies that included 8,256 workers. The association between secondary traumatic stress (STS) and job burnout in professionals was significant and large. Workers were more likely to experience compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion compared to PTSD-like symptoms and depersonalization, however, even the association with PTSD-like symptoms and depersonalization was moderate and significant. Both women and men were susceptible to STS, but the effect was larger in women.
Burnout and other consequences of indirect exposure to trauma are likely to be high among mental health professionals. Burnout will affect professionals’ well being and quality of life, and will diminish their effectiveness with patients through reduced empathy and increased disengagement. Mental health professionals who are exposed to secondary trauma should be aware of the potential for negative personal consequences, and assess their own level of emotional exhaustion, empathic capacity, and engagement. Mental health professionals should seek help if they re-experience the events, engage in avoidance of trauma triggers and emotions, and experience heightened arousal. Taking care of oneself through consultation with trusted colleagues, change in work contexts, social supports, and personal therapy could help to forestall compassion fatigue and burnout. Educational programs to improve self awareness and mindful communication may reduce burnout in mental health professionals.