Organizational Response to Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue

By: Pamela Altmaier

Over the past few years, more attention has been focused on the issue of Secondary Traumatic Stress and Vicarious Trauma within the field of Student Affairs. Professionals that work directly with students of concern are exposed to trauma each and every day and often times has an effect on their wellbeing and their organization's wellbeing. Research has shown that organizations have a responsibility to support their staff members and mitigate the harm of STS and Vicarious Trauma. If not, not only will staff members feel the effects but the organization as a whole will be hindered. This blog post will review specific proactive and reactive aspects any organization should focus on to respond to the impacts of crisis management and student care.

Our Profession

Over the past few decades, the Student Affairs profession has changed dramatically. In Crisis, Compassion, and Resiliency in Student Affairs, Kruger explained that the work has “become more serious, more complex, and more personally draining” (p. vii). He continues to explain that this complexity is related to the “Big Six”: mental health and suicide prevention; resolving complex sexual violence cases; alcohol and other drug abuse prevention; responding to protests and activism; advancing social justice and inclusion practices; meaningful reform of Greek life (p. viii). (Treadwell & O'Grady, 2019) I argue that most of these fall onto the shoulders of Case Managers, Title IX Investigators/Coordinators, Student Conduct professionals, and Housing professionals. All of which are our colleagues at the Association for Student Conduct Administration. 

Many of us were drawn to these roles because of our desire to help and support the success of others. And in turn, we pour ourselves into our work and students. As Treadwell and O'Grady explain, this work “is a lifestyle, not a job.” (p. 16). With this increase in complexity and strenuous workloads, we are constantly responding, triaging, and rarely disconnect from our work. We fully commit ourselves and our teams to students despite the long hours and impact on our wellbeing. Our professional is in a “constant state of exhaustion and mental fatigue” and as an institution, we are inadequately set up to support ourselves or each other. (Treadwell & O'Grady, 2019, p. 14)

Now I would be disingenuous to leave out the additional impact of this work on our colleagues from marginalized populations. As Moriarty and Solis illustrated, our staff of color not only respond to crises and students of concern but also have an additional expectation to keep a pulse on the campus climate. They continue to state, “[staff members of color] may feel overworked, overwhelmed, manipulated, and even exploited”. (Treadwell & O'Grady, 2019, p. 133) I argue that our staff of color, and other marginalized populations, are navigating experiencing personal attacks/bias, burdened caseloads, and the additional responsibility to support students with their shared identity. As an organization, we have a greater responsibility to respond to the impact on these colleagues. 

How can our organizations respond to Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) and Compassion Fatigue (CF)?

Based on the nature of our work, Secondary Traumatic Stress and Compassion Fatigue may be unavoidable. The only guaranteed way to prevent these impacts is to never respond to trauma and to limit the amount of compassion we provide to others, which are fundamental aspects of our work. That being said, we can work to mitigate the potential and treat the impacts (Mathieu, 2012). The onus of this response must be on the organization as a whole and not placed on the shoulders of each individual. As Killian (2008, p. 43) stated, "As trainers, educators, and supervisors, we want to protect therapists from Compassion Fatigue, enhance their resilience, and help professionals deliver quality mental health interventions, but to achieve these goals, we may need to shift paradigms, move our focus away from individualistic efforts at education and training and toward a more systematic approach of advocacy for healthier working conditions."

My recommendations for organizational response are based on themes provided by Mathieu (2012). Research has shown that these components have been found to reduce the prevalence and impacts of STS and CF: (1) Acknowledgement, (2) Organizational Culture, (3) Workload, (4) Training, (5) Managers and Supervisors, and (6) Debriefing and Processing.


At the bare minimum, organizations need to acknowledge the existence of STS and CF and normalize the experience when dealing with trauma and/or taxing workloads. (Mathieu, 2012). Specifically in Student Affairs, we can use prior crises and situations as case studies, tabletops, or discussion prompts before an actual crisis even occurs (Treadwell & O'Grady, 2019). Research has shown that the more an individual understands their expectations for handling crises or students of concern and the potential impacts of these situations, the less likely they are to experience STS and CF (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk, 2009).

Organizational Culture: 

Providing care and support to a team cannot be accomplished by checking a series of boxes. A supportive environment needs to integrate into the organizational culture itself. As I said earlier, an organization's response to STS and CF cannot only be reactive to a major crisis or when individuals start to experience the impacts of their work, it needs to be at the forefront of the organization and integrated into its everyday practices. The literature recommends practices including encouraging debriefing, regular breaks, mental health days, peer support, assessing and changing workloads, improved access to further professional development, and regular check-in times where staff can safely discuss the impact of their work (Mathieu, 2012). 


Research has been able to show that workload has a significant impact on STS and CF. This can be caused by numerous factors including, role overload, lack of control over the workload, low workload satisfaction, and frequent restructuring (Mathieu, 2012, van Dernoot Lipsey, 2009). In the last decade, resources and funding have decreased while expectations on staff are increasing, leaving staff inadequately supported with their workload (van Dernoot Lipsey, 2009). 


Research has illustrated that continual and adequate training is vital for organizations. In interviews, Mathieu (2012) found that many individuals experiencing severe CF felt unprepared and incompetent in their role. Training must review the processes and procedures that staff are expected to utilize, but also the skills necessary to prevent and respond to CF and STS. 

These skills include:

  • Trauma Stewardship: An approach to be fully present when experiencing trauma. It is based on being mindful of how your body is responding and how it is impacting you. This approach should be applied to any trauma exposure regardless of the severity, length of exposure, and reoccurrence. In Trauma Stewardship, van Dernoot Lipsky and Burk explain “if we are truly to know joy, we cannot afford to shut down our experience of pain”. (van Dernoot Lipsky & Burk, 2009, p. 15)

  • Somatic Empathy: A skill of balancing engaging in empathy for others while staying aware of the impact on ourselves. This can be extremely difficult if we can relate to the other individual's hardship. According to van Dernoot Lipsky and Burk (2009), “it is important to know where our own self ends and another's self begins” (p. 21). Without this skill, our ability to separate ourselves from the trauma we are experiencing vicariously is decreased, and our chances of experiencing CF or STS increases (Mathieu, 2012).

  • Self-validated Caregiving: Engaging in self-care practices without the guilt of prioritizing one's self (Gentry, 2002).

Managers and Supervisors:

Based on the literature, managers and supervisors play a vital role in supporting their team and creating beneficial environments. The manager or supervisor needs to actively support and acknowledge the impacts of CF and STS. These efforts can include understanding the impact, role modeling positive behaviors and coping strategies, keeping challenges/exposure in perspective, proactively expressing concern for well-being, seeking staff feedback and suggestions, limit stigmatization of CF and STS, and praising positive efforts of staff (Mathieu, 2012). In Crisis, Compassion, and Resiliency in Student Affairs, Jordan asks that supervisors and managers don't assume staff wellbeing is consistent and continually check-in with their teams to understand their work and the impacts of it (Treadwell & O'Grady, 2019). 


Lastly, debriefing is a vital step in dealing with trauma and exposure to hardship. There are two main types of debriefing. First is an informal debriefing, where supervisors and/or colleagues discuss the incident without a formal agenda or set time. According to Mathieu (2012), harm can come from informal debriefing. When the impacted party shares their experience with others, they may unintentionally expose the other individual to the trauma or hardship and ultimately can cause that individual to experience CF or STS as well. 

The second is formal debriefing, where a session or series of sessions are scheduled to discuss the incident or event. This is more common for large-scale events that impact an entire team/organization. Similarly to informal debriefing, intentionality is needed when considering formal debriefing. Aspects to consider include: Who will be leading the debriefing? Organizations may want to utilize an outside resource to facilitate; so all members of the organization can adequately participate. Should debriefing be held in a large group or smaller subsets? The literature illustrates that individuals may not be willing to fully engage with their direct supervisors in the room for fear of being labeled. While that same literature suggests that supervisors engage in role modeling, which could include demonstrating vulnerability. Ultimately, these decisions need to be made based on the dynamics of the organization and context related to the specific situation. (Mathieu, 2012)

So where do we start? 

Anywhere! I am writing to you all to ask that you just start! Our profession is being asked to do more with less every day. Our work is inherently built on establishing relationships with students and supporting them through their hardships and successes. We cannot expect to do this work without being affected by it personally. As Remen (1996) wrote, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” (p. 52). 

We must work as teams and organizations to support and meet the challenges of our work together. The burden of care should not fall onto the shoulders of those impacted, but on our profession to create a culture of care for each other. If each of us takes these lessons back to our organizations and implement them, we will grow and become stronger as a profession. 

Thank you all for everything you do for your students, your colleagues, your organizations, and yourself.


Gentry, E.J. (2002). Compassion fatigue: The crucible of transformation. Journal of Trauma Practice, 1(3/4), 37–61.

Killian, K.D. (2008). Helping till it hurts? A multimethod study of compassion fatigue, burnout, and self-care in clinicians working with trauma survivors. Traumatology, 14(2), 41.

Mathieu, F. (2012). The compassion fatigue workbook: Creative tools for transforming compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization. New York, NY: Routledge.

Remen, R.N., (1996). Kitchen table wisdom. New York: Riverhead Books.

Treadwell, K. L., & O'Grady, M. R. (2019). Crisis, compassion, and resiliency in student affairs: Using triage practices to foster well-being. Washington, DC: NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Van Dernoot Lipsky, L., & Burk, C. (2009). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.


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