Addressing Secondary Traumatic Stress: Models and Promising Practices

Publication date: 
July 2020

Executive Summary

Secondary traumatic stress—behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a client and the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help that client—is an occupational hazard for service providers who work with traumatized populations. Without adequate self-care and organizational support, secondary traumatic stress impacts not only the affected staff members, but also their clients, their families and friends, and their agencies through organizational dysfunction and costly employee turnover. Agencies that experience secondary traumatic stress are the same agencies that funders entrust with addressing some of the most challenging problems in our communities. The quality of services that those clients receive may be compromised when staff’s well-being suffers. Thus, philanthropic support for education, prevention, and mitigation of secondary traumatic stress is a crucial component of effective, efficient, and humane service delivery.

The purpose of this study was to identify effective models and promising practices for supporting staff of community-based organizations who experience secondary traumatic stress. Of the many traumatized populations, this study focused primarily on immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, with the findings and recommendations intended to be generally applicable to other fields where STS is common. The study employed triangulation through the application of three methodologies: (1) a rapid literature review; (2) individual interviews with fifteen administrators/managers of programs or agencies that serve foreign-born populations; and (3) focus groups in four cities with a total of 29 staff who work directly with foreign-born populations. The organizations represented included both mainstream providers that include immigrants and refugees among their clients (e.g., social service agencies, hospitals) and organizations that primarily work with refugees and/or immigrants.

The rapid literature review of 127 studies on interventions for secondary traumatic stress (STS) identified nine studies meeting the methodological criteria for best practices. Best practices that emerged spanned both organizational and individual interventions. Best practice organizational interventions included improved work schedules, lower caseloads, more diverse caseloads, job rotation, organizational support, improved work environment, collegial support, and teambuilding. Best practice individual interventions included psychoeducation about stress, trauma, and STS; stress management training; debriefing and communication skills; relaxation and mindfulness; coping strategies; social support; counseling; and resiliency training. The research literature suggests common themes in best, promising, and emerging practices across varying contexts (e.g., immigration, child welfare, juvenile justice, health), providers (e.g., healthcare workers, therapists, social workers), and clients (e.g., victims of violence or abuse, refugees, medical patients).


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