Burnout, vicarious trauma and professional supervision


Sometimes our situation, whether in work or personal lives, can lead to us feeling burnt out. My clients describe it in a number of ways such as feeling tired and flat all the time, struggling to enthuse about life, feeling overwhelmed or simply as losing one's mojo. There are parallels with depression and certainly, prolonged burnout can lead to depression. There is an article on my therapy site I wrote several years ago on depression about how it can signal that something needs to change.

It might be that we need to consider changing our working patterns, or areas of burden and responsibility in our lives. Or up the self-care. Or learn to say no (more about managing boundaries here).

Some of us may have burnout because we are caring for a relative with a terminal illness, end of life, or a life changing injury, illness (physical or mental; acute or chronic) or medical procedure. This is a lot to carry on our shoulders and whilst, understandably, the focus is on the person we are caring for, most of us need a space to offload sometimes. Ideally this would be with close friends and so it might be work exploring why we don't feel able to confide in others. Sometimes the content of the offload isn't appropriate for close friends so a professional confidante can fill this gap.

Vicarious trauma

This term, along with secondary trauma, is used to describe the emotional and physiological response to hearing or witnessing traumatic incidents that have happened to others. Whilst empathy is an important trait that helps build trust and bond in relationships, the flip side is we can essentially feel somebody else's pain. If this happens too much then we can end up carrying some of the other person's trauma in our bodies. To remedy this we might need to take a sabbatical, change our routines, up the self care, or talk about what we are holding with an appropriate other. 

Some lines of work may involve directly witnessing suffering, difficult medical procedures, death or cruelty inflicted on others. Or indirectly eg dealing with evidence or a difficult court case, hearing witness statements.

Clinical supervision

Therapists and coaches partake in a professional exercise called Supervision; particularly therapists. The BACP (the largest professional body for therapists) mandate a minimum of 1.5hrs per month. Not only is this a space to explore and reflect upon ethical dilemmas and best practice, but it is also a place to offload, in a neutral and confidential setting, about how we how we might be personally impacted by the work. It strikes me that there is a distinct lack of this opportunity in many other professions where I would consider it extremely important such as medicine, other health professionals, military, police and fire service, law and further, any managerial position which requires an element of listening to other people's trauma. For example, it may be that a colleague or employee has attempted or succeeded in ending their life. At the very least, being a manager can mean holding the emotional space and responsibility for a number of other individuals who rely upon the success of the company to feed their family and keep a roof over their heads. This is a lot to carry.

Relational Coaching

My service offers the opportunity to talk frankly about personal and professional challenges. Being a trauma aware therapist and coach I am experienced and skilled in providing psychoeducation around these matters and sharing strategies to help manage the impact. Sometimes simply talking about the challenges in a trusting, confidential space within the context of a professional yet very human relationship, can help us feel a lot lighter and move on emotionally. I know this because I do it, and I have assisted many others in doing the same.