What is Secondary Traumatic Stress?

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) affects all kinds of workers: firefighters and police officers, teachers and case managers, probation officers and public defenders, therapists and clergy members, hospice nurses and emergency room physicians—anyone whose job calls them to empathize with someone else’s trauma and distress.

Such helping work brings rewards: human connection, pride, purpose, feelings of efficacy and value. But it can also have corrosive effects like those of experiencing trauma first-hand: problems with concentration and focus; insomnia or nightmares; anxiety and depression; physical ailments; feelings of burnout, apathy and isolation.

Over time, and without support, people with STS may feel a withering toll on their bodies, minds and spirits.

Meet workers who have experienced STS in these short highlights from Portraits of Professional CAREgivers: Their Passion, Their Pain.

At home, STS can cause conflicts in relationships and parenting; it can lead to substance abuse and domestic violence. At work, STS can result in absenteeism, employee illness, low productivity, increased turnover and sinking morale. Workers with STS may have trouble thinking, learning, managing change and relating to colleagues and clients.

STS is sometimes called the “cost of caring.” But caregivers and helping professionals don’t have to pay such a steep price. Policy makers, workplaces and individuals can act to buffer, reduce and prevent STS, building a culture in which all of us care for each other.

Related Concepts  

There are many concepts that overlap with STS. In this webcast Frank Ochberg explains the differences between Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Vicarious PTSD, Burnout, and Caregiver Burden. 

Other concepts that are similar include Vicarious Trauma (VT) and The Second Victim.