Coping with secondary trauma as a social worker

As a social worker in the UK, you’re probably all too familiar with the terms ‘burnout’, ‘stress’ and ‘emotional exhaustion’ – but what about secondary trauma? 

In this blog, we explore exactly what it means to have secondary trauma, and how to spot the signs. 

What is secondary trauma? 

Secondary trauma is when an individual internalises the abuse and trauma experienced by one of their clients/patients. 

Social workers with secondary trauma may become less inclined to ask about the service user’s experiences in an attempt to disassociate with the traumatic event that is likely too painful to accept. 

Saakvitne and Pearlman (1996) beautifully articulate the experience as follows: “It is a process, not an event. It includes our strong feelings and our defences against those feelings. It is our strong reactions of grief, rage, and outrage, which grow repeatedly as we hear about and see people’s pain and loss and are forced to recognise human potential for cruelty and indifference, and it is our numbing, our protective shell, and our wish not to know.”

What are the symptoms to look out for? 

Symptoms are similar to PTSD, and can present as: 

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Negative outlook on the world
  • Highly irritable 
  • Fatigue 
  • Guilt
  • Vivid imagination / intrusive thoughts
  • Low concentration levels
  • Nightmares
  • Substance or alcohol abuse
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Poor performance at work (e.g. low morale, boundary violations and lack of care)

How to mitigate the effects of secondary traumatic stress? 

Healthy work/life balance – don’t lose who you are – save time for hobbies and quality time with friends and family. 

Self-care – this includes saying no and putting yourself first, especially at work. Ensure you are getting enough sleep, exercising and eating a balanced diet. 

Rediscover the passion for your profession – reconnect with the rewarding elements of your job in social care and remind yourself why you embarked upon this career in the first place. 

Use the support available – join a support group, ask your colleague to help with additional work, seek counselling for STSD – whatever it is you need, help is out there.

Build rapport with your colleagues – it’s important to create a supportive atmosphere at work where you and your colleagues can uplift one another. Plus, speaking to those in a similar situation can help you validate your feelings and make you realise you’re not alone!

Take breaks – take time away from work both during the day (e.g. going for a walk on your lunch break) and in terms of annual leave. This is paramount for maintaining mental wellbeing and will help your mind unwind from work-related stressors. 

Create clear boundaries between work and home – whether you get changed out of work clothes when you get home or if you’re working from home, try not to work in your bedroom as it is important to differentiate between downtime and work. If your brain is constantly reminded of work then it will be more challenging to sleep and ‘switch off’ from the day behind you. 

Please note that these methods are not cures for secondary trauma, but rather coping mechanisms and preventatives which should help reduce stress levels and boost morale. 


If you’re a social worker experiencing symptoms of secondary post traumatic stress, we urge you to seek professional advice and alert your place of work so that the right support can be provided. 

To contact our team, email us at [email protected].

carlette Isaac

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