Holistic Career Counseling for Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma

By Jean Becker-Sullivan

Through the on-going pandemic and social justice protests, many dedicated professionals working in fields such as law enforcement and healthcare are exposing themselves to danger through the course of their work, every day. Many in helping professions show signs of compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma (CF/VT; Mathieu, 2012). This can occur through direct exposure, such as being on the front lines and ultimately in harm’s way (e.g., working in an emergency room). It can also occur through secondary exposure from hearing work related traumatic stories through high levels of media coverage.

The year 2020 has brought about much social change that impact labor markets and certain professions. As career development professionals, we can help these workers recover, reevaluate, and take steps to restore the trajectory of their careers. These clients can benefit from a holistic approach that supports the complexity in their lives and fosters reinvention and resilience.

The Cost of Caring

Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are considered occupational hazards related to the “cost of caring” (Mathieu, 2012, p. 9). Ultimately the professionals who are the most caring experience changes at a fundamental level. This often includes a loss of innocence and a profound shift in their world view, which may become skewed, and can lead to intrusive thoughts and images that are difficult to ignore (Mathieu, 2012). Some symptoms of CF/VT are depression, increased use of alcohol and drugs, heightened anxiety, and hypervigilance (Mathieu, 2012). CF/VT is a complex mental health issue that may be diagnosable according to the DSM-5, as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (when it meets the criteria).

Photo By Felix Koutchinski On Unsplash
Under normal conditions, CF/VT impacts helpers in wide variety of fields including teachers, physicians, nurses, animal shelter workers, paramedics, psychologists, counselors, social workers, medical staff, prison therapists, judges, police officers, chaplains, and others. However, with the onset of COVID-19 and recent social-political upheaval, CF/VT is now amplified. How long can professionals endure these conditions? The New York Post reports that law enforcement personnel are retiring in record numbers (McCarthy et al., 2020). Similarly, NBC reports that nurses are leaving the profession because they feel expendable (Samee, 2020).

Mental Health Counseling and Career Counseling

Individuals who desire to transition to new career fields or return to school may seek the services of career development professionals. As current conditions continue, career development professionals may see increases in the need to service clients who are experiencing CF/VT. CF/VT is an extraordinarily complex mental health issue with many interrelated parts. From this perspective, it is paramount that these individuals receive both career counseling and mental health counseling. (Service-providers must be practicing within the boundaries of their professional competence as outlined in the NCDA Code of Ethics [National Career Development Association, 2015]). “The practice of career counseling must be holistic and should consider a broader range of issues in the person’s life” (McKay et al., 2005b, p. 99).

Constructivism and Chaos Theory

Traditional trait and factor approaches have worked well when careers were long lived, and the world was a more stable place. Many of us might agree that such stability is not present in today’s world. For this reason, experts concur that addressing psychological issues and utilizing a broad scope is optimal. Constructivism in career counseling is one approach that provides for a range of interventions related to psychological issues that accompany student and clients’ career concerns (Herr, 1997).

When encountering a CF/VT case, career development professionals would do well to assess and treat mental health and CF/VT with a constructivist approach, which by its very nature is holistic. One such strategy is the narrative approach in which, “the client’s narrative of past experiences, current meanings, and future actions is the story that reveals one’s self-knowledge (interests, abilities, achievements, values, and motivation, etc.)” (Jordan & Marinaccio, 2017, p. 3-38). Another option is the application of Chaos Theory using a systems approach in which careers have uncertainty and experience non-linear change. Chaos Theory also highlights the importance of reinvention and resilience (McKay et al., 2005a).

These approaches provide an opportunity for the client to explore all of details in their stories. Holistic approaches also provide an excellent framework for individuals to tap into their ideas for reinvention and resilience, leading to the potential for longer term success. These strategies use a broad scope and therefore may serve students and clients with CF/VT more fully.

Current and Future Needs

Career development professionals may need to prepare to provide holistic care that includes mental healthcare and career counseling if they will be providing service for clients with CF/VT. Professional development activities are one way to learn more about holistic care and its related trends, assessments, and interventions. NCDA’s COVID-19 Career and Mental Health Resources may also be helpful. We may see an increase in the need for holistic career services in the year to come in a variety of student and client career development contexts.



Jordan, L. A., & Marinaccio, J. N. (Eds.). (2017). Facilitating career development student manual (4th ed.). National Career Development Association.

Mathieu, F. (2012). The compassion fatigue workbook. Routledge.

McCarthy, C., More, T., Celona, L., & Goldring, B. (2020, July 8). NYPD limits retirement applications amid 400 percent surge this week. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2020/07/08/nypd-limits-retirement-applications-amid-411-surge-this-week/

McKay H., Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2005a). The chaos theory of careers in career education. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48, 163-166.

McKay H., Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2005b). Finding order and direction from chaos: A comparison of chaos career counseling and trait matching counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 42, 98-112.

National Career Development Association. (2015). NCDA Code of ethics. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738700

Samee, S. (2020, May 10). Why some nurses have quit during the coronavirus pandemic. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-some-nurses-have-quit-during-coronavirus-pandemic-n1201796


Jean Becker SullivanJean Becker-Sullivan M.A., LPC, CAC-II owns and operates Solutions Counseling Center in Colorado. She graduated from University of Northern Colorado with a master’s in clinical counseling and provides employee assistance services to clients experiencing compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma and other career related issues. Jean can be contacted at jean@jeanbeckersullivan.com


Printer-Friendly Version

1 Comment

Melissa Venable   on Wednesday 12/09/2020 at 01:31 PM

Thank you for sharing information about compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, Jean. This seems so relevant now, but certainly something many fields and professions have been dealing with for years. Appreciate the the increased awareness and suggested resources.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.