The prevalence and correlates of secondary traumatic stress among alcohol and other drug workers in Australia

April 2015
Ewer, P. L., Teesson, M., Sannibale, C., Roche, A. and Mills, K. L. (2014) The prevalence and correlates of secondary traumatic stress among alcohol and other drug workers in Australia. Drug and Alcohol Review. Early view online, DOI: 10.1111/dar.12204

The high prevalence of trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among clients of alcohol and other drug (AOD) services is well documented. Little is known, however, about how working with traumatised clients impacts upon the AOD workers who treat them. Research has shown that exposure to an individual’s trauma history through assessment and treatment results in an increased risk of the clinician becoming traumatised themselves. This is often referred to as ‘vicarious traumatisation’ or ‘secondary traumatic stress’ (STS).

Although STS has been referred to as an occupational hazard for those working with trauma survivors, there is a dearth of research examining STS among the AOD workforce. Given the high prevalence of trauma and PTSD among clients of AOD services in Australia, it is likely that similarly high rates of STS may be present among Australian AOD workers; however, the degree to which it is suffered by AOD workers in Australia is unknown. This study aimed to address this gap in the literature by examining the prevalence and correlates of secondary traumatic stress (STS) among AOD workers in Australia.

An anonymous web-based survey was undertaken and completed by 412 Australian AOD workers. The questionnaire assessed current levels of trauma training, extent of exposure to clients with a history of trauma history, AOD workers’ own history of trauma exposure and PTSD, and current STS.

This study is one of few investigations undertaken to examine the prevalence of STS among AOD workers, and it is the first one to examine this issue in Australia. Consistent with international studies, one in five (19.9%) AOD workers in the present study met criteria for STS. In addition, the study found:

  • an independent association between STS and higher levels of stress and anxiety;
  • STS was associated with receiving fewer hours of clinical supervision each month.

This study provides valuable information regarding the prevalence of STS among individuals working in the Australian AOD sector, along with the factors associated with an individual experiencing STS. The findings also emphasise the importance of clinical supervision for AOD workers who are treating complex clients.

Secondary Traumatic Stress

STS is defined as ‘the natural, consequent behaviours and emotions resulting from knowledge about a traumatising event experienced by a significant other. It is the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatised or suffering person’. STS has been included in the most recent revision to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.).