Understanding the impact of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue on hospital social workers

Dr Mim  Fox1, Mr Ben Birrell1

1University Of Wollongong , Wollongong , Australia, 2The Sutherland Hospital , Sutherland, Sydney , Australia

Patients and families present to all areas of the hospital often having experienced trauma and in crisis. The social work workforce provides a service by responding to these situations in emergency departments, on other wards, after hours and in clinics daily. This frequent and regular exposure to crisis, loss and a sense of uncertainty leaves the social work workforce vulnerable to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. Knowledge of this impact on the health and wellbeing of the social worker, the daily experience of fatigue, job satisfaction, the impact of hospital workplace culture and the ensuing responsibility for all of this is unclear and unrepresented in the social work and interdisciplinary literature. The Vicarious Trauma & Research Initiative (VICTARI) is a collaborative research partnership between South East Sydney Local Health District and the University of Wollongong, established in 2017. This research investigates the experience of and potential impacts of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma in hospital social workers and aims to understand workplace versus individual responsibility in this arena, occupational health & safety policy and clinical supervision guidelines for hospital social workers. The methodology used in this study is primarily qualitative, coming from a participatory action research framework. Presented here are the findings from an online survey sent to four major metropolitan hospitals, and two rounds of in-depth interviews with social workers both prior to and after the busy winter period. Themes that have emerged from the data include the need and importance of clinical supervision, informal debriefing, autonomy over workload, and a reliance on self care strategies such as regular breaks and exercise. This research is applicable to various allied health professions who similarly are exposed to patients and families stories of trauma and complex health needs.


Dr Mim Fox is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Wollongong, in a research partnership with South East Sydney Local Health District. Ben Birrell is the Head of Social Work Department at The Sutherland Hospital. Both engage in social work practice-based research throughout the District.

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