The vicarious impacts of helping work: the joy and the pain

an aerial view of ripples in a small pond surrounded by mossy rocks | vicarious impacts of helping work | Tempo Therapy and Consulting

13 Dec 2023

As helping professionals, the question is not if, but 'when will we experience the vicarious impacts of this work?' In recent years, we have become more aware of terms such as vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and moral injury in helping others. There are, however, also joyful, hopeful and inspiring aspects of this work. Here at Tempo, we make sense of both sides through the 'Joy - Pain Spectrum'. Take a look at the graphic overview to understand more.

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The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily, and not be touched by it, is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.

The purpose of this blog is to offer a graphic overview of the 'joy' and the 'pain' in helping work: the pleasant and challenging vicarious impacts of your work as a health or education professional, carer or other kind of helper. It invites you to reflect upon, be curious, learn about and build awareness of how your work is impacting you - for better, worse, or anything in between - in order to support you to keep doing the work you love without burning out.

Take a look at the graphics below to understand how your helping role might be affecting you.

What is the 'Joy - Pain Spectrum'?

Helping work requires us to step into another’s experience, in order to understand, meet, be with, or collaboratively transform it in some way.

The experience is shared: the struggles, the pain; the triumphs and the joy.

Whilst workers are trained to, and practise keeping themselves separate, inevitably we step into the joy and the pain of those with whom we work.

Just as doing this helps to make changes in the lives of those with whom we work, in turn, it has an impact on us: it is a reciprocal, neurobiological phenomenon.

We can conceptualise this as a spectrum with two sides:

  • pain, fatigue and exhaustion at one end
  • and joy, satisfaction and energy at the other.

Both ends of this spectrum are a natural and normal part of the work; and can be seen through the following perspectives:

  • moral health
  • compassion
  • empathy
  • vicarious impacts

To see this as a whole, we can conceive of this as a spectrum:

What are the differences here?

Let's unpack this in some more detail...

* Moral Injury Outcome Scale Project (Phoenix Australia)

** Please note, the term 'compassion fatigue' is here due to its common usage, but please note the debate urging the use of the term 'empathic strain' instead here.

For those interested in a deeper dive, you are invited to explore these concepts through the 5-part blog series, 'The Joy - Pain spectrum series' here.

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Header image: Luca Bravo