In many professions, the physical signs of work are visible. Carpenters might have rough hands and chefs often get burns and cuts from the kitchen. Howeve, in the aged care sector, the marks left by work are not so easily seen.

Cameron Burgess, National Director at the Mackillop Institute, describes the unique burden borne by aged care staff “emotional labour”. These workers carry the emotional weight of their job, which can lead to vicarious trauma.

“Vicarious trauma is exposure to other people’s trauma,” Burgess explained. “This could be hearing stories or witnessing events that have the same harmful effect on an aged care staff member as if they had experienced that trauma directly.”

Aged care staff are particularly vulnerable to vicarious trauma due to the nature of their work.

“The end destination point for anyone in aged care is death. So that, in and of itself, is a traumatic event for anybody,” Burgess said.

He further noted that aged care environments often bring unresolved personal traumas to the surface for residents, who have ample time to reflect and share their stories with staff. This exposure can deeply affect not only care workers but also cleaners, chefs, and other staff members.

The entry into aged care is often a traumatic experience for residents and their families, signifying significant losses. This can lead to dysregulated behaviour, adding to the stress faced by staff.

“Repeated exposure to these dynamics, in addition to medical episodes, contributes to vicarious trauma,” Burgess said.



Recognising the signs of vicarious trauma is crucial. Burgess outlined three categories of warning signs: physical, behavioural, and psychological.

Physical signs include insomnia, exhaustion, frequent sickness, and stress-related illnesses with no clear medical explanation.

“We use a fancy academic word called ‘somatisation’ to describe these stress-induced ailments,” Burgess mentioned.

Behavioural signs include labelling or grouping residents as:

  • Hopeless
  • reduced empathy
  • avoidance of people
  • irritability
  • overreaction to situations

“You might find yourself overreacting to comments or situations, or keeping it together at work only to be harsh with your kids at home,” Burgess noted.

Psychological signs include:

  • emotional exhaustion
  • a shift in worldview
  • questioning the meaningfulness of one’s work.

“You might start to think people aren’t inherently good anymore or feel that your work isn’t making a difference,” Burgess explained.

In extreme cases, this can lead to a workaholic approach as a way to cope.

To combat vicarious trauma, the Mackillop Institute emphasises prevention through training and social support.

“It’s not a fait accompli; you don’t have to experience vicarious trauma,” Burgess asserted.

One of the most effective preventative measures is fostering social support within teams.

“Creating dynamics where staff can support each other through difficult times is crucial,” Burgess said. The training also includes developing personal safety plans, and encouraging staff to identify three strategies to ground themselves and gain perspective during tough times.

Ultimately, supporting aged care staff is about valuing their wellbeing. “If we can create a skilled and supported workforce in aged care, the benefits will flow to the residents,” Burgess concluded. “We want facilities where staff genuinely care, not just those who are burnt out from the emotional and systemic pressures of the job.”

The emotional labour carried by aged care workers may be invisible, so acknowledging and addressing vicarious trauma is essential. Through awareness, training, and strong support systems, we can help safeguard these dedicated professionals and improve the quality of care they provide.

SOURCE: Hello Care