Introduction to… Vicarious Trauma in the Contact Centre

Person covering face - mental health concept
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Quick Overview

Vicarious trauma – also referred to as compassion fatigue – is a real danger within the contact centre; more so than ever before since the introduction of hybrid working models and also given the current economic climate, so managers need to understand:

  1. What Vicarious Trauma Is
  2. The Signs Someone Is Suffering With Vicarious Trauma
  3. The Impact on Individuals Handling Calls AND Service Users
  4. Practical Next Steps to Help Someone

Gemma Khairi, Operations Director at Helplines Partnership, explains vicarious trauma in the contact centre and how this can be addressed.


Understanding Vicarious Trauma

Here are four questions every manager needs to know the answer to in order to get to grips with addressing vicarious trauma:

1. What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Defined simply as ‘a process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors’ (British Medical Association), vicarious trauma (VT) is a term for the emotional changes an individual can experience when listening to and supporting people who share traumatic stories, calls, and experiences.

It may also be known as secondary traumatization or stress, leading to compassion fatigue or burnout. The cumulative effects of handling emotional and distressing contacts can negatively impact on a person’s social behaviours, emotional wellbeing, physical health, and cognitive reasoning.

The cumulative effects of handling emotional and distressing contacts can negatively impact on a person’s social behaviours, emotional wellbeing, physical health, and cognitive reasoning.

2. What Are the Signs Someone Is Suffering With VT?

One way to mitigate the long-term risk of vicarious trauma is to better understand a number of indicators – the individual may be feeling drained and fatigued, and be unbale to switch off from their job or clients, rather remaining ‘stuck’ in the emotion.

They may become preoccupied with the presenting facts of the caller, which leads to a change in world view and beliefs. In some cases, the individual may become angry, reactionary, and withdrawn, with very low resilience.

A comprehensive list of indicators can include:

  • Anger and irritability at home and/or at work
  • Avoidance of clients/callers
  • Consuming high-trauma media as entertainment
  • Not returning phone calls at work and/or at home
  • Avoiding colleagues and staff gatherings
  • Avoiding social events
  • Impaired ability to make decisions
  • Feeling helpless when hearing a difficult client story
  • Imposter syndrome – feeling unskilled in your job
  • Thinking about quitting your job
  • Compromised care for clients/patients or avoiding certain clients
  • Engaging in frequent negative venting
  • Difficulty separating personal and professional life
  • Depersonalization

3. What’s the Impact on Individuals Handling Calls AND Service Users?

If unaddressed, VT could not only harm the service worker but can also have serious implications for your service users.

During calls, call handlers suffering with VT may become risk averse during interactions, leading them to miss significant risk.

Overloaded person sat at desk rubbing their face

Not only this, but the call handler may appear disconnected from the caller, and be unable to display truly empathic responses, even avoiding certain calls so the caller does not receive the help and support they need.

This could continue to the point where the call handler even shuts down during a shift, unable to perform their role.

Outside of work, VT can impact sleep, social life, mood, resilience and even create anxiety and irritability.

The effects can be far-reaching, and a concern not only professionally, but in people’s personal lives.

4. What Are Some Practical Next Steps to Help Someone?

Reducing the risk of VT in the first place is key for avoiding the issue altogether before it is able to develop.

To do this, organizations should have adequate strategies in place to manage this, such as one-to-one supervision and thorough debriefing sessions after each shift, allowing call handlers to leave interactions behind and process them.

You may also want to consider group supervision, or even peer discussion and support, which can work well.

Other strategies might include adapting environments to manage sensory stimulation, reducing noise and distractions that can contribute to feelings of overwhelm, plus learning to recognize triggers and warning signs.

Ensure you have a check-in process and make a list of your physical, emotional, and behavioural signs to give you a warning.

To do this, ensure you have a check-in process and make a list of your physical, emotional, and behavioural signs to give you a warning.

In particular when working remotely, staff should be encouraged to have balance across their work and home life and focus on ‘switching off’ when they finish a shift.

Additional Resources

The Professional Quality of Life Measure is a self-assessment questionnaire that people can access online for free.

It gives people a score for 3 sub-scales:

  1. compassion satisfaction (how happy you are at work)
  2. burnout (which anyone in any job can experience, but which appears to be on the rise)
  3. secondary trauma (which is VT).

It’s a useful resource that can be implemented organizationally (during supervision, for example) or individually. It’s provided in 28 different languages, so has great accessibility.

Skills and strategies for wellbeing will often alleviate symptoms, so if call handlers are not doing so already, looking into the 5 Ways for Wellbeing or Breathing exercises can be helpful. There are lots of smartphone apps and YouTube videos on these topics.

Of course, if people think they’re suffering with VT, professional help may be required. It’s worth exploring that with their GP and employer if they feel comfortable doing so.

About Helplines Partnership

Gemma Khairi, Operations Director at Helplines Partnership
Gemma Khairi

Helplines Partnership is the membership body for organizations that provide information, support or advice via phone, email, text or online.

There are approximately 350 members in the UK and internationally, varying from large national charities to smaller local and specialist charities, as well as some businesses.

Helplines Partnership has been committed to supporting organizations that provide non-face-to-face advice, support and information to improve general wellbeing for over 20 years, through offering training courses on topics such as Vicarious Trauma, Helplines Standard certification, consultancy pieces, different membership types, and policy and research work, amongst other services.

Thanks to Gemma Khairi, Operations Director at Helplines Partnership, for this article.

If you are looking for more information on supporting your team’s health and wellbeing, read these articles next:

Author: Guest Author
Reviewed by: Megan Jones

Published On: 28th Jun 2023 - Last modified: 31st Oct 2023
Read more about - Call Centre Management, , ,

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