Understanding and Managing Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma and Burnout – Lucy Maguire

On 4th March 2019, ARA hosted an event titled ‘Understanding and Managing Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma and Burnout’. This day-long workshop, facilitated by Gary Brannan and Martin Smith, was a useful way to consider how working with distressing records may impact upon us as professionals, and how we may better support ourselves and colleagues in handling the kind of upsetting material that almost inevitably crops up over the course of a career working with archival material.

The day began with a short presentation from Gary who explained the demand for the workshop, tracing its genesis all the way back to a conference in 2013. More recently Gary took the group through one of the ARA’s most responded to membership surveys which concerned stress resulting from working with archives or records. Respondents had communicated that there were stressful elements of their professional roles, but that they rarely felt able to relieve this stress through employer support or with support professionals, instead often relying on friends, family and colleagues. The survey identified a specific need for support training, which Gary explained had led to the development of online guides and support training through this day and a further event in London.

Gary explaining history of training day

Gary Brannan explaining the history of the training.

After laying the foundation for why the sector could benefit from this kind of training, Gary handed the session over to Martin Smith, who introduced himself as a practising therapist, trainer and lecturer. Martin quickly established that confidentiality would be respected in the room, so that participants could discuss their work. Next, we went around the room, giving our name, role and what we hoped to gain from the day. A variety of organisations, and variety of aims were represented – most of us were generally looking to support our work and the work of colleagues. The SfNP was also represented by Rosie, who explained to the group that she was looking to gain an insight into what further support could be given to new professionals working with potentially distressing or upsetting records.

Martin started the morning session by imploring us all to be realistic about the potential (and probability) for work with distressing records to affect us. He went on to define the key terms that would be used throughout the day, explaining that he would use vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue interchangeably. Their common definition was “indirect exposure to trauma through a first-hand account or narrative of a traumatic event”.

We went on as a group to discuss the causes and symptoms of compassion fatigue; what might trigger it and how the effects might manifest.


Martin Smith introducing the Logical Levels pyramid.

Martin introduced the group to a number of different useful frameworks throughout the day to aid our understanding and evaluation of compassion fatigue. The Dilt model looks at issues in “logical levels” – environment, behaviours, skills/capabilities, beliefs/values and identity. In an exercise, the group reflected on a case study, using each of the logical levels to consider where the issue was impacting and what kind of positive steps could be taken to address it. Martin also explained the ‘4 A’s (awareness, acceptance, agreement, action) which provide a useful idea of how compassion fatigue can be managed in four stages.

The Four As

The ‘Four A’s.

Over the course of the workshop, Martin was careful to explain that there are no absolutes when it comes to compassion fatigue – it’s possible for lots of different people to experience it, and to varying degrees. Similarly, your experience managing it will depend on your work environment and your own experience – while time off may be appropriate for some people, others may feel a loss of purpose by not coming in to work that outweighs the benefits. Martin encouraged us to tailor the frameworks and exercises he provided to our individual situations.

Overall this was a very useful training day, and I’m sure will have been of benefit to all who attended. Another event is being held in April, and the ARA training resources are available online – I would highly recommend them to any reader, especially fellow new professionals, who would like some further information on how to manage working with upsetting materials.

Lucy Maguire, Records Management Assistant, Cheshire East Council

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