Remember: keep the human in human services.




Third sector work is influenced by many different theories of practice to guide and shape the way we work. We do this because the nature of the work has us working with people at some of the most vulnerable times in their lives. Times where people are managing life threatening issues, highly complex human crisis and/or are dealing with significant levels of trauma. 

Being mindful of this we build programs and services that recognize, support, nurture, include, value and build upon people’s strengths and resilience in the hope that they may overcome the issues before them. Working and offering support in these environments can be difficult and the efforts of those offering assistance are commendable, especially as they are constantly engaging in an empathetic manner with people experiencing trauma and tragedy. 

Research into the effects of working with trauma has noted that vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue occurs as a result of this type of working environment. Pearlman and Saakvitne describe vicarious traumatisation as ‘…the transformation in the inner experience of the therapist [caregiver, social worker etc] that comes about as a result of empathic engagement with clients’ trauma material’ (1995, p.p. 31). This transformation is an important reminder that as humans we are affected by what we exposed to and that we are not as stoical as we wish to believe. 

Further to this a ‘Formal caregiver’s reduced capacity or interest in being empathic or “bearing the suffering of clients” and is “the natural consequent behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced or suffered by a person” is how compassion fatigue is defined (Adams, Boscariono, Joseph and Figley, as cited in Figley, 1995, p.p. 7). When we accept the natural consequence of trauma work we accept that we are affected by the world we are exposed to and that we can exhibit similar responses to the people we assist. I don’t see these natural consequences raising concerns or stirring fear but rather an opportunity to rethink the relationship of our work and ask, how are we supporting those who are supporting others?

Awareness in trauma work is highly important. One thing I have come to understand is that the response to trauma work can only have a human response, that is to say that one’s response will be similar to those we support. ‘The affront to the sense of self experienced by therapists of trauma victims can be so overwhelming that despite their best efforts, therapists begin to exhibit the same characteristics as their patients that is, they experience a change in their interaction with the world, themselves, and their family. They may begin to have intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and generalized anxiety. They themselves need assistance in coping with their trauma’ (Figley citied Cerney, p.p.137, 1994). By accepting the mirroring effects of trauma work we acknowledge that the only response to trauma, vicarious or direct, is one that exposes us to our shared vulnerability.
Working with trauma we need be mindful and inclusive of our own vulnerability and where we don’t run the risk of turning the process of applying theories of practice into one of working “at you” not “with you”. I feel in order to truly acknowledge the nature of the work, with trauma, we need to understand the relational nature of the work and look to create a mirrored work environment like the one we wish to create for the people we support. I see such an approach as a way in which we build practices in the workplace to create a more reflective, aware, balanced and connected work environment, one that will become more holistic. Where we acknowledge the true impact of work with trauma, we recognise the vulnerability in all of us and better connect with the “human” in human services.

Reference List

Adams, R. E., Boscarino, J. A., & Figley, C. R. (2006). Compassion fatigue and psychological distress among social workers: A validation study. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76(1), 103-108. Retrieved from,

Figley, R.C. (1995). Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Pearlman, L.A., & Saakvitne, K.W. (1995). Trauma and the Therapist, Countertransference and Vicarious Traumatization in Psychotherapy with Incest Survivors. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.