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  • Vicarious trauma: The invisible epidemic

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    • UK
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    • Health and care staff, Patient safety leads


    In healthcare, an insidious epidemic lurks beneath the surface, affecting the very individuals tasked with providing care: vicarious trauma by empathy. Despite its profound impact, this phenomenon remains largely unrecognised and under-discussed within the sector. As leaders, it is imperative that we shed light on this invisible trauma and acknowledge it as one of the greatest challenges facing our industry, as Margarida Pacheco explains in her blog.


    Vicarious trauma, also known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue, arises from the empathetic engagement with patients' suffering.

    While healthcare professionals possess an innate capacity for empathy, their repeated exposure to trauma narratives and distressing experiences can lead to the gradual erosion of their emotional resilience. This erosion manifests as symptoms akin to those of post-traumatic stress disorder, including intrusive thoughts, emotional numbing and heightened arousal.

    The root of this epidemic lies in the nature of healthcare itself. Our profession demands unwavering dedication to alleviating the suffering of others, often at the expense of our own wellbeing. The relentless pace of patient care, coupled with the emotional intensity of clinical encounters, creates a breeding ground for vicarious trauma to take hold.

    Yet, amongst the urgency of patient needs and the pressures of institutional demands, the silent struggles too often go unnoticed. It not only jeopardises the mental health of individual practitioners but also undermines the quality of patient care & the resilience of our healthcare systems as a whole.

    Studies have shown undeniable links to burnout, compassion fatigue and diminished job satisfaction. When untreated it can lead to absenteeism, turnover and compromised patient safety; thus, perpetuating a vicious cycle of distress within the healthcare workforce.

    To address this pressing issue, we must foster a culture of empathy and self-care.

    Education and awareness-raising initiatives are paramount, empowering teams to recognise the signs of vicarious trauma and seek support without stigma. Additionally, policies should prioritise the implementation of evidence-based interventions, such as TRiM, trauma-informed supervision and mindfulness training, to promote resilience and prevent the onset of vicarious trauma

    Moreover, we must advocate for systemic changes that promote wellbeing and foster a healthy work environment. This entails addressing structural factors contributing to vicarious trauma, such as workload pressures, inadequate resources and hierarchical power dynamics.

    This is a silent epidemic, exerting a profound toll on the well-being of healthcare professionals and the quality of patient care. It is incumbent upon leaders to bring this issue to the forefront of discourse and action.

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    About the Author

    Margarida Pacheco is Head of Governance and Clinical Quality at BUPA Cromwell Hospital.

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