Here's another ASWB exam content outline item that's good to stay mindful of for everyday social work practice: Burnout, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue. Let's take a look at the terms, prevention, and how this material might look on the ASWB exam.


Burnout, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue are three related but distinct concepts commonly encountered in professions that involve caring for others (eg social work). Here's a brief overview of each:

  • Burnout: Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged stress and overwork. It's characterized by feelings of cynicism, detachment from work, and a sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment. Burnout typically develops gradually and can result from chronic workplace stressors such as excessive workload, lack of control, and interpersonal conflicts. Symptoms of burnout can include fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and changes in sleep patterns. Burnout not only affects an individual's work performance but can also have serious implications for their overall health and well-being.

  • Secondary Trauma (aka Vicarious Trauma): Secondary trauma refers to the emotional and psychological distress experienced by individuals who are exposed to the trauma of others, often in the context of their work. This can occur, for example, among social workers who regularly care for patients who have experienced trauma. Symptoms of secondary trauma can include intrusive thoughts, emotional numbing, anxiety, and depression. Without appropriate support and coping mechanisms, exposure to secondary trauma can lead to significant distress and impairment.

  • Compassion Fatigue (sometimes called Secondary Traumatic Stress): Compassion fatigue refers to the emotional and physical exhaustion that can result from caring for others who are experiencing suffering or trauma. It is characterized by a gradual depletion of empathy and compassion, as well as feelings of emotional numbness and detachment. Compassion fatigue can develop over time as individuals repeatedly engage with the pain and suffering of others without sufficient opportunities for self-care and replenishment. Symptoms can include feelings of hopelessness, irritability, diminished sense of purpose, and decreased satisfaction with work. Like burnout and secondary trauma, compassion fatigue can have serious consequences for both individuals and the organizations they work for.

It's important for individuals in helping professions to be aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout, secondary trauma, and compassion fatigue, and to prioritize self-care and seek support when needed. Employers and organizations also play a critical role in promoting staff well-being by providing resources, fostering a supportive work environment, and implementing strategies to prevent and mitigate the impact of these phenomena.


Prevention of all of the above generally involves both individual effort and organizational support. Here are some prevention measures (personal and organizational):


  • Self-care: Prioritize personal well-being by engaging in regular self-care activities such as exercise, mindfulness, hobbies, and socializing with friends and family. Adequate rest and relaxation are essential for replenishing emotional and physical energy.

  • Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. This might involve limiting work-related activities outside of regular hours, setting aside time for relaxation and leisure activities, and learning to say no to additional responsibilities when necessary.

  • Seek support: Seek support from colleagues, supervisors, or mental health professionals when needed. Having a supportive network can provide validation, encouragement, and practical assistance in coping with stressors.

  • Develop coping skills: Stress management techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and cognitive-behavioral strategies for managing negative thoughts and emotions can be enormously helpful. 


  • Promote a supportive work environment: Foster a culture of open communication, empathy, and mutual support within the organization. Encourage teamwork, collaboration, and peer support networks to help individuals feel valued and connected.

  • Regular supervision and debriefing: Provide opportunities for regular supervision and debriefing sessions where individuals can discuss challenging cases, share experiences, and receive feedback from colleagues and supervisors. This can help individuals process their emotions and gain perspective on their work.

  • Training and education: Provide training and education on topics related to self-care, stress management, resilience, and recognizing the signs of burnout and secondary trauma. Equip individuals with the knowledge and skills they need to take proactive steps to maintain their well-being.

  • Address systemic issues: Identify and address systemic factors within the organization that contribute to burnout and secondary trauma, such as excessive workload, inadequate resources, and lack of support. Implement policies and procedures that promote work-life balance, job satisfaction, and staff well-being.

On the Exam

Here's an idea of how this material may look on the ASWB exam:

  • An organization promotes a culture of open communication, empathy, and mutual support among its staff. This is an example of:
  • Burnout different than compassion fatigue because:
  • What organizational approach is effective in preventing secondary trauma among social work agency staff?

You get the idea. For questions--with answers, rationales, and suggested study links--sign up for SWTP's full-length exams.

I'm Ready.

March 4, 2024
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