Assessing Contributing Factors

The Venn Diagram tool is designed to help you identify sources of strengths and stressors in your personal and professional life. The circles overlap since there are certain factors that may be coming from several areas of work and personal life at the same time.

Image courtesy of Dr. Leslie Anne Ross, UCLA


Personal Circumstances


Everyone has a life story that shapes who they are. This life story can be empowering – but it can also leave you more vulnerable to difficult and challenging cases.


Personal circumstances include such things as your history, coping style, and personality. These factors all impact your ability to manage stress. For example, many helpers are part of the “sandwich generation,” meaning that they care for both young children and aging parents. These are additional pressures outside of any work-related stress.


Other risk factors related to your personal circumstances might include:


  • Having a history of childhood adversity.

  • Navigating a challenging family crisis (such as a custody dispute, divorce, fertility crisis, financial stress, etc.)

  • Providing care for someone with significant needs.

Helpers are not immune to pain in their own lives. Research shows that over 60% of helping professionals have a trauma history of their own (Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995). Consider the potential risk factors in your personal life – what elements are a source of strength? And what elements are a personal trigger?


Work-Related Traumatic Grief and Loss


As helping professionals, experiencing grief and loss in the workplace can often be unavoidable. Feelings of grief and loss can surface during situations of “unfinished business” – such as when a client passes away (anticipated or sudden), when a patient is discharged from treatment, or when a student is unexpectedly pulled from school.


We can also experience grief and loss during times of disruption in our workplace including:


  • A colleague or leader being fired, dismissed, retiring or unexpectedly leaving the workplace.

  • A partner agency closing.

  • A beloved mentor retiring.

Have there been recent events in your workplace that caused you or your team to feel grief or loss? How do you process these events?

Direct Exposure


Experiencing direct exposure means that a traumatic event is happening directly to you or in front of you. During these situations, your personal safety might be at risk, someone might be seriously injured, or you might experience feelings of terror.


There are two potential sources of direct exposure – personal and professional.


Personal – experiencing a traumatic event in your personal life. These events might include:


  • Being a victim of a crime.

  • Seeking asylum in a new country.

  • Experiencing a serious medical crisis.

Professional – experiencing a traumatic event in the line of duty. These events might include:


  • Being involved in a lock-down.

  • Being threatened or assaulted at work.

  • Experiencing a hate crime.

Does your work require you to work on the front line? What strategies do you have to prepare before, during, and after these events?

Indirect Trauma


Experiencing indirect trauma means that you experience a traumatic event second-hand. These experiences are often those that haunt you or seem to "hitch a ride with you" after hearing, seeing, or reading about them.


The terms secondary trauma, secondary traumatic stress (STS), and vicarious trauma all describe experiences of indirect trauma.


Indirect trauma can be caused by situations such as:


  • Working with a client/patient/student who has experienced abuse and hearing details of their story.

  • Reading case files.

  • Witnessing graphic testimonies during a court case.

  • Having colleagues debrief a traumatic case with you.

With the ready availability of social media and internet, many of us inadvertently add to our levels of indirect trauma every day. From distributing news coverage to graphic TV shows, this frequent deluge of trauma exposure can be insidious and hard to pinpoint. 


Take a trauma-input survey of your work and personal life. What are you exposed to at work? Are there areas of unnecessary exposure in your personal life that you can reduce?



Empathic Strain (also known as Compassion Fatigue)


Empathic strain is the profound emotional and physical exhaustion that can develop over the course of your career. It is a gradual erosion of all the things that keep you connected to others including your empathy and your hope - not only for others, but also for yourself.


Experiencing a high level of empathic strain might look like becoming dispirited at work, contributing to a toxic work environment, breaking confidentiality, or easily becoming short-tempered with loved ones when they come to you with problems or need your help.


You might be at-risk for developing empathic strain if you:


  • Hear similar stories from your clients or patients all day long.

  • Provide care to people who report feeling “stuck”, chronically overwhelmed or who never seem to get better.

  • Have worked in the same position or field for many years.

Have you noticed a shift in your connection with others over the last few years?


Systems Failure


This refers to the “red-tape” or roadblocks that prevent service providers from giving the best possible care or services to their clients, patients, or customers. Examples of systems failure include:


  • Large amounts of seemingly extraneous or tedious paperwork.

  • Navigating long waiting lists or convoluted systems for your clients or patients.

  • Disagreements about who should be eligible for a certain service.

One result of facing these numerous challenges can be moral distress. Moral distress occurs when we are told to do things with which we fundamentally disagree, are morally opposed to, or when our values conflict with what is required by law.


What hurdles do you face in your place of work? Are there times during which you ethically disagree with decisions made in your workplace or profession? Do you have a support network to discuss and process these constraints?



Working Conditions


This refers to how you experience or perceive your workplace including your relationship with your supervisor and colleagues, perception of fairness and appreciation (salary, rewards, benefits, vacation time etc.), and your workload. Poor working conditions are often a primary source of burnout.


The quality of your working conditions can be impacted by:


  • Your sense of trust in leadership.

  • The quality and timeliness of communication within your organization.

  • The degree to which you feel you are fairly compensated for the work that you do.

Think about the elements of your workplace that have nothing to do with client relations. If you could keep your current job and clients/patients/students, but work within a different team or organization, do you think you would be happier?


Socio-Cultural Context


Source: (2019) the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Secondary Traumatic Stress Collaborative Group).


The term socio-cultural context refers to the intersection of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, historical trauma, and other elements that define your identity. These factors may come into daily collision with the socio-political factors of your community including the rules, regulations, laws, and political climate of where you live and work.


Risk factors related to socio-cultural context include:


  • A current crisis or cultural shift that personally impacts you and your way of life.

  • Being asked to do tasks outside of your scope of work because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc.

  • A lack of representation of your race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc. within your workplace or profession.

Do you identify as belonging to a group that is experiencing discrimination? If so, has this identity led to experiencing oppression and/or silencing in the workplace?

This tool was developed by Françoise Mathieu, Leslie Anne Ross, UCLA and the Secondary Traumatic Stress Consortium, a group of researchers, trainers, practitioners and advocates with a common goal to advance the field of secondary traumatic stress towards health. Thank you also to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Secondary Traumatic Stress Collaborative Group for their contribution to the socio-cultural factors of the Venn diagram.