Secondary Trauma in the Nursing Industry & How HR Leaders Can Help

What is secondary trauma in nursing?

While nurses provide compassionate care to patients experiencing some of life’s most difficult moments, this constant exposure to trauma can lead to secondary trauma, says FreshRN, a condition where a caregiver experiences emotional and psychological distress as a result of empathic engagement with their patients’ suffering. 

This secondary trauma can manifest in several ways, impacting not only nurses’ well-being but also the quality of care they provide. Common signs include: Increased irritability or withdrawal, decline in job satisfaction, and even compassion fatigue characterized by cynicism and lost empathy. It is also known to cause difficulties concentrating, leading to potential medication errors.

By shifting some policies and practices to focus more clearly on wellness and employee self care, organizations can prevent and ease burnout, secondary trauma, low morale and turnover, the latter of which abounds with hidden costs.

Secondary Trauma vs. Burnout

According to this report, just 12% of nurses feel happy in their current position and 87% have felt burnout in the past year, a sure reason for alarm considering how in-demand nurses are.

This makes it’s even more critical that healthcare organizations nationwide make a concerted effort to engage their existing nurse population while attracting and retaining recent RN graduates, all of whom crave a healthy and supportive work environment that proactively addresses the root causes of both burnout and secondary trauma.

While these states of mind can overlap and share similar characteristics, there are key differences. Therefore, it’s important to distinguish between the two, though they can co-occur and share symptoms.

Burnout often stems from general workplace stressors like workload and lack of control. Secondary trauma is a specific human response to the continued exposure to traumatic stories and others’ suffering.

Nurses experiencing burnout might feel cynical or apathetic toward their job duties in general. In contrast, secondary trauma leads to emotional exhaustion specifically tied to patient experiences.

Create a Wellness Committee

Investing in a staff wellness committee is a proactive strategy to combat both secondary trauma and burnout. It also provides a platform for nurses to have a voice in shaping initiatives that support their well-being. Start by building a strong committee with nurses from various departments and experience levels for a well-rounded perspective. 

In addition to allocating financial and administrative resources, provide clear direction and goals to empower the committee. Focus on initiatives to reduce stress, promote self-care, and create a supportive work environment. Encourage them to design opportunities that resonate with both themselves and their colleagues, be it yoga classes, meditation sessions, or after-work social events.

Show Gratitude & Recognition

In addition to a wellness committee, fostering a culture of gratitude can combat secondary trauma. Studies show that expressing appreciation to nurses boosts morale, reduces stress, and strengthens their connection to their work. 

Simple gestures like a handwritten thank-you note or public recognition of an accomplishment can go a long way. That’s because they, like all workers, crave meaning, purpose, and appreciation – elements that a well-designed recognition program can deliver. 

To start, define your program objective, whether it be to retain existing talent, boost leadership confidence or cultivate positivity. Then, set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals and establish clear criteria. Finally, choose your recognition benefits, host a grand roll-out and always evaluate and evolve. 

happy nurses in meeting

Get a Pulse on Employee Sentiment With Employee Surveys

Regularly gauging employee sentiment is vital for identifying potential issues related to secondary trauma, especially considering 43% of employees don’t feel they have the resources and support they need to manage stress.

Employee engagement surveys and well-being surveys are a powerful tool for regularly checking in on nursing staff morale. Not only do they provide the feedback necessary to identify key issues before they become problems, they also allow HR departments to make informed decisions and assess the effectiveness of new programs.

Take Action with Data

Healthy and resilient nursing staff is the foundation of a high-functioning healthcare system. By shifting your focus from simply mitigating secondary trauma to actively fostering well-being and resilience in nursing staff, you can create a thriving and sustainable healthcare environment.

Regularly checking in on employee well-being empowers quick action through new policies, programs and benefits. The key lies in proactive measures. By prioritizing your nurses’ well-being, you’re not just investing in their individual health, you’re investing in the future of quality patient care. People Element makes it easy. 

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People Element will build you a custom quote based on your specific needs, number of employees, and level of assistance required. We would love to hear from you and learn more about your needs. Please reach out to discuss your personalized quote. 

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