Addressing the Effects of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by Court Employees

Close contact with trauma survivors is an element of employment that court employees experience regularly. However, most employees, and even court managers, give little thought to the effects this contact may have on their personal and professional lives. Until recently, the fact that this secondhand connection to trauma could be a professional hazard for those working in the court system was rarely acknowledged, but it can indeed lead to symptoms that become overwhelming and possibly career threatening to the employee.

Identifying Occupational Hazards

Professional literature distinguishes between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), burnout, and a third occupational hazard that has been labeled by several interchangeable terms, including compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a psychological reaction occurring after experiencing a highly stressing event (such as wartime combat, physical violence, or a natural disaster) that is usually characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and avoidance of reminders of the event.” Court employees are rarely exposed to firsthand traumatic events through the course of their work. While the trauma court employees may experience should be no less of a concern, the root causes of PTSD are different and, therefore, the recommendations for working with employees experiencing PTSD are different.

Burnout can be described as “a result of the general psychological stress of working with difficult clients”1 or “an advanced state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion related to the stresses of the job.”2 Many organizational factors, including a supportive administration, availability of professional challenges, higher salaries, and assistance in providing client services, decrease burnout rates within an agency.3 The effects of burnout may be mitigated by remaining attentive to and addressing the symptoms relating to the third occupational hazard of working with victims of trauma: vicarious trauma.

What Is Vicarious Trauma?

Day in and day out, court employees find themselves assisting victims (and perpetrators) of trauma in and out of the courtroom, whether in a professional, clerical, or administrative capacity. The details of the court user’s personal life are often exposed to the court employee, even when the contact is outside of the courtroom, such as assisting an individual to order a transcript or directing them to the clerk’s office to complete a form. Exposure to trauma, even secondhand exposure, has been found to have severe and lasting effects on an individual.

Vicarious trauma can be described as “the experience of a helping professional personally developing and reporting their own trauma symptoms as a result of responding to victims of trauma.”4 TEND, an organization devoted to assisting helping professionals to cope with the effects of this occupational hazard, describes vicarious trauma as “the profound shift in world view that occurs in helping professionals when they work with clients who have experienced trauma.”5 This shift in world view can manifest itself in symptoms that are both physical and emotional, and as varied as the individuals who are affected. These symptoms, left unrecognized and untreated, may lead to more serious effects on an employee’s professional and personal life.

It should be a concern of the court manager to prevent, to the highest degree possible, the long-term effects of employee exposure to trauma through their work. By investigating and addressing the potential of employees to develop symptoms of vicarious trauma, a court manager will be better equipped to curtail the long-term effects of vicarious trauma on court employees, ultimately leading to a more satisfying, healthy, and productive workforce.

Exposure to Vicarious Trauma in the Courts

Murder, sexual abuse, child endangerment, and domestic violence may be viewed as the most traumatic events that can bring an individual into the court system. But divorce, robbery, fraud, and many other civil and criminal acts can cause a person to experience trauma. While court employees are not exposed to this trauma firsthand in a professional capacity, most employees find themselves working closely with victims or perpetrators of traumatic events, or at least exposed to the details of these traumatic events, through their work.

Some employees may find themselves more exposed to the trauma of court users than others, but with rare exception, no court employee is immune from being exposed to others’ trauma. For example, court clerks, court reporters, and court interpreters are often in the courtroom for the entire length of a court hearing or trial. They may follow a case from arraignment or even preliminary appearance to its final resolution at trial, becoming intimately familiar with the facts and parties to a case, as well as the evidence presented, over the course of months or years. Other employees, such as case managers, law clerks, and judicial assistants, may work primarily outside of the courtroom but still be required to become closely familiar with the facts and evidence of a case through legal research and preparation or have regular contact with self-represented litigants through the processing and scheduling of a case. Even administrative staff members find themselves exposed to traumatizing elements of a case through their role in helping victims and litigants navigate the court system or directing them to the appropriate department.

The idea that there can be a “cost of caring” for other people in a professional capacity was first put forth by Dr. Charles Figley in 1982.6 However, it was not until the early 2000s when vicarious trauma was first recognized as a hazard for legal professionals. It was at that time judicial organizations and state bar associations began studying the effects of trauma on judges and attorneys.

How may repeated exposure to others’ trauma manifest itself in the physical and psychological conditions of a court employee? Vicarious trauma “can lead to changes in self-identity, spirituality, and psychological needs of the affected individual and may also disturb an individual’s sense of safety, trust, and control.”7 Anne Chambers, LCSW, the director of the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, provides this list of vicarious trauma symptoms:

  • increased anxiety (vigilance and jumpiness)
  • being on guard and alert to possible threats to oneself, family, and friends
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty sleeping
  • anger or irritability
  • mental intrusion of images from cases
  • dreading work
  • avoiding or being less responsive to colleagues, cases, or clients
  • desensitization or becoming numb

Additional symptoms include the use of alcohol or drugs to unwind or “forget about work,” diminished self-care, and increased susceptibility to illness and physical ailments. This list is by no means exhaustive. Chambers warns that “symptoms can overlap with signs of depression like sadness, detachment, pessimism, and irritability.”8 Left unrecognized and untreated, vicarious trauma “ultimately decreases [employee] functioning and undermines the working environment in an organization.”9 Organizations affected by secondary trauma can see lower motivation, productivity, and quality of work from employees; impaired judgment and lower compliance with policies and procedures; and increased rates of absenteeism and ultimately turnover.10

Some helping professions, such as psychology and social work, have recognized vicarious trauma as an occupational hazard and have developed curriculum to train future professionals on the effects that working with trauma in a professional capacity can have on their personal and professional lives.11 However, those who enter professions in the court system do not necessarily receive training that exposes them to the effects their daily work may have on them physically or psychologically. Nor do they receive training on self-care methods or the importance of creating boundaries and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

In writing about vicarious trauma in social workers, Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton note that age and experience are inversely correlated with the development and expression of vicarious trauma. The younger and less experienced counselors exhibited higher levels of stress than their peers. The authors suggested that the less experienced social workers had not yet had an opportunity to develop coping strategies for the effects of the trauma they would experience, and they had less of an “opportunity to integrate traumatic stories and experiences into their belief systems.”12

Some employees may be at greater risk for developing symptoms of vicarious trauma than others. Chambers suggests that legal professionals working with criminal, family, and juvenile cases are at a higher risk, as are those who are regularly exposed to graphic evidence, grim dockets, and higher caseloads. She also warns that legal professionals who work alone and have limited support are at greater risk.13 A prior history of personal trauma also indicates a higher risk for the development of vicarious trauma.14 In a 2016 article regarding the emotional attachment of court reporters to their profession, one court reporter indicated that reporters who are former victims of child abuse have difficulty reporting cases involving child abuse, as reporters who are victims of robbery have difficulty reporting cases involving robberies.15

Compounding the problem of recurring exposure to trauma, and inadequate training to mentally process the effects of that exposure, is the expectation that court employees remain objective and impartial to the outcome of a case. Many helping professionals, such as counselors or social workers, have the responsibility of assisting one individual or group at a time. Additionally, counselors and social workers often have time between clients or sessions to decompress, speak with colleagues, and find a way to process their emotional reaction to a particularly traumatizing session. Unfortunately, court employees do not often have that luxury. They may be in the middle of a trial or back-to-back hearings, not finding much time to work through the personal impact a particularly traumatizing piece of evidence, testimony, or the collective weight of a case. Court employees may then bring this trauma home with them, only to determine that the confidential nature of the work they perform prevents them from being able to share these details with their closest family and friends. Chambers describes the risk of exposure to trauma for judges, but the same can be said of court employees assisting the judge in the courtroom. “They are expected to be neutral in the face of tragedy, perform duties impartially without being unduly swayed by emotion, and serve as the balance point.”16

Empathy is defined as “the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others.”17 Empathy is a critical trait for anyone working with individuals who have been traumatized. It is also one of the most highly sought traits by employers today.18 However, as impartial representatives of the court, court employees are expected to repress their emotional reactions to what may be viewed as too violent or gruesome for television. Employees who work in the courtroom are often seen as ancillary characters, “silent actors,” who work in the background and are not affected by what happens in the courtroom.19 However, that’s far from the case. In a 2009 article on the impact of vicarious trauma on court interpreters, one interpreter remarked, “Sometimes I also kind of take it a little bit personally. I mean it’s hard to program yourself like a rock, a stone face in a courtroom and not worry about [it] going home.” This interpreter admitted to going home and feeling sadness after many cases.20

Studying Exposure to Vicarious Trauma in the Courts

A great deal of research has been done regarding vicarious trauma experienced by helping professionals. Out of this research has come a call to supervisors and colleagues to monitor the mental health and well-being of employees, as well as numerous suggestions for employers to mitigate the effects of exposure to trauma.

While much has been written about vicarious trauma experienced by social workers, first responders, and other helping professionals, vicarious trauma has just recently been recognized as an occupational hazard for professionals in the legal field. The American Bar Association and state bar associations are beginning to conduct research of their own regarding the effects of vicarious trauma on attorneys. A 2003 study on the effects of vicarious trauma on judges has created a call for more research and development on this issue.21 However, a void exists for studies focused on the court professional who is neither judge nor attorney. This lack of research highlights the importance of court managers familiarizing themselves and their staff with this occupational hazard and developing both personal and organizational methods of coping with vicarious trauma.

Preparing Employees

Preparing employees for the potential hazards they may find in their court position can start as early as the application-and-interview process. The Superior Court of California of Calaveras County includes a special requirement to their position description for the court clerk. A candidate must “tolerate exposure to: evidence and testimony that may be disturbing, such as photographs of murder scenes and victims; evidence that may include syringes, drugs, weapons, and blood; defendant and witnesses who may potentially be verbally or physically abusive, allergens, such as perfumes and dust; and unpleasant odors, such as unwashed clothing, chemicals offered into evidence and unwashed people.”22 Individuals who know they are unable to meet this requirement can opt out of the selection process before they even apply for the position.

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) recommends incorporating situational interview questions into the interview process. These types of questions provide a hypothetical scenario to determine how a potential employee will respond to a given situation. Not only does it allow the employer to probe a candidate’s experience, behavior, knowledge, and skill, but also allows them to reiterate the working conditions to which a potential employee will be exposed. A sample situational interview question for an employee who will be working in a criminal courtroom may be:

Working in this position, you will be exposed to secondary trauma, which means exposure to the trauma experienced by others. At the same time, as a representative of the court, you must maintain the appearance of objectivity and impartiality. Specifically, you’ll hear 911 calls, graphic testimony regarding violent acts, and view photographs and video of injuries and crime scenes that will be admitted into evidence. Tell us how you will work with the defendant and victim in such a case and maintain your composure and neutrality.

A hiring manager can follow up with the question, “How will you maintain a healthy work-life balance?” to ensure potential candidates have given thought to the effects their future work may have on their personal lives.

What Can Court Managers Do?

Once hired, court employees are encouraged to develop and demonstrate empathy for those individuals involved with the judicial system while they are expected to maintain impartiality as representatives of the court. Furthermore, court employees are often bound by codes of ethics and confidentiality, which prevent them from discussing court-related matters outside of the courtroom. How do we support our employees in living up to the ideals of empathy, impartiality, and confidentiality, while also supporting their well-being as individuals who may be affected by their work?

A 2003 study found that attorneys demonstrated higher levels of vicarious trauma and burnout than mental-health providers and social-service workers. The authors attributed the difference to higher caseloads and limited supervision over the effects of their exposure to trauma.23 Court managers should take particular note of this conclusion and make concerted efforts to provide sufficient oversight and education to their staff regarding the effects of vicarious trauma on their personal and professional lives.

Courts can assist new employees who will be exposed to trauma as part of their job by providing them with a mentor who has experience in the same type of work that the new employee will be performing. The mentor can speak about the effects exposure to trauma may have on their work and personal life, as well as debrief with that employee after a hearing or trial involving testimony or evidence of a traumatic nature. Court-assigned mentors can assist employees in processing the traumatic nature of evidence and testimony that they have been exposed to without necessarily violating the confidentiality of their work. Having regular team meetings during which employees discuss the effects of trauma exposure on their lives and strategies they have for mitigating those effects can also go far in assisting new employees.

According to a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of March 2016, 86 percent of all state government employees and 71 percent of all local government employees had access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).24 EAPs provide employees access to referral and counseling programs to help them in dealing with personal problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse, marital difficulties, or emotional problems. Supervisors can use their EAP to provide training programs to educate their court employees on the existence of vicarious trauma and teach them coping mechanisms. They can also work with community partners, such as social-service agencies, to provide similar training. Training can be done on a regular basis or as needed, such as when there is a particularly traumatizing event of a high-profile nature or a series of traumatizing cases to which a number of court employees will be exposed. At a minimum, court managers should regularly remind their employees of the services available to them through the EAP and make their contact information readily available.

Managers can provide their staff with access to self-assessments and other educational materials regarding vicarious trauma, so they can remain alert for the development of symptoms in themselves and coworkers. Doctors Beth Stamm and Charles Figley have developed a self-test for compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction that courts can encourage their staff to complete on an annual or semiannual basis.25 Managers should encourage their staff to speak with them if the results show they are at risk for compassion fatigue or burnout, so they can evaluate trauma exposure, workload, and other risk factors.

TEND suggests that managers be open to assessing employee workloads to reduce exposure to trauma. Providing cross-training opportunities for staff is another way of supporting those staff who are at the highest risk of developing vicarious trauma based on their work. Benefits such as flexible scheduling, training related to vicarious trauma, and the ability to connect with coworkers away from work can provide staff with outlets to remove themselves from the trauma to which they are regularly exposed through their daily work.

Managers can encourage employees to focus on maintaining a healthy personal life, such as having a strong social support network outside of the courthouse, with whom they can laugh, exercise, and enjoy other hobbies. In a 2016 article on court reporters, one court reporter indicated that her spouses’ occupation as a law-enforcement officer was beneficial to their relationship, as he understood the nature of her work, as well as legal terminology and concepts, and he had an interest in the criminal cases she reported.26

Court managers should remain cognizant of the symptoms of vicarious trauma, monitor their staff who are at risk of developing these symptoms, and work with employees to reduce their exposure to trauma whenever possible. Court managers are encouraged to educate employees about the symptoms of vicarious trauma to ensure their physical and mental well-being and ultimately reduce the rate of burnout within the court system.

About the Author

Tiffany Hammill is the human resources manager at the Twelfth Judicial Circuit in Florida. This article was adapted from her capstone paper for Michigan State University’s Judicial Administration Program.


  1. Robyn L. Trippany, Victoria E. White Kress, and S. Allen Wilcoxon, “Preventing Vicarious Trauma: What Counselors Should Know When Working with Trauma Survivors,” Journal of Counseling and Development 82 (2004): 31-37.
  2. Anne Chambers, “Judges and Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and What to Do About It,” Missouri Bar Association website (n.d.).
  3. Holly Bell, Shanti Kulkarni, and Lisa Dalton, “Organizational Prevention of Vicarious Trauma,” Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services 84 (2003): 463-70.
  4. Peter Jaffe, Claire Crooks, Billie Lee Dunford-Jackson, and Michael Town, “Vicarious Trauma in Judges: The Personal Challenge of Dispensing Justice,” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 54, no. 4 (2003): 1-9.
  5. What Is Compassion Fatigue?” Q&A, TEND website.
  6. Fact Sheet #9: Vicarious Trauma,” American Counseling Association (October 2011).
  7. Jared Chamberlain and Monica K. Miller, “Evidence of Secondary Traumatic Stress, Safety Concerns, and Burnout Among a Homogeneous Group of Judges in a Single Jurisdiction,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 37 (2009): 214-24.
  8. Chambers, supra n. 2.
  9. Cindy S. Lederman, Joy D. Osofsky, and Frank W. Putnam, “How to Maintain Emotional Health When Working with Trauma,” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 59 (2008): 91-102.
  10. Id.
  11. Brittany Stringfellow Otey, “Buffering Burnout: Preparing the Online Generation for the Occupational Hazards of the Legal Profession,” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 23 (2014): 147-202.
  12. Bell, Kulkarni, and Dalton, supra n. 3.
  13. Chambers, supra n. 2.
  14. Scott Greisberg and Andrew P. Levin, “Vicarious Trauma in Attorneys,” Pace Law Review 24 (2003): 244-52.
  15. Stanley L. Brodsky, Claire E. Moore, and David Sams, “The Hidden Lives of Court Reporters,” Jury Expert: The Art and Science of Litigation Advocacy 28, no. 2 (2003).
  16. Chambers, supra n. 2.
  17. William A. Gentry, Golnaz Sadri, and Todd J. Weber, “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership,” white paper, Center for Creative Leadership (2007).
  18. Ernest J. Wilson III, “5 Skills Employers Want that You Won’t See in a Job Ad, ” Fortune (June 10, 2015).
  19. Brodsky, Moore, and Sams, supra n. 15.
  20. Kajori Chaudhuri, Sonali Rana, and Purvi Shah, “Whose Truama Is It? Vicarious Trauma and its Impact on Court Interpreters.” Proteus: The Newsletter of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (winter 2009-10): 5-9.
  21. Jaffe et al., supra n. 4.
  22. Court Clerk I-IV Job Description,” Superior Court of California, County of Calaveras website.
  23. Greisberg and Levin, supra n. 14.
  24. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 40: Quality of Life Benefits: Access, State and Local Government Workers, March 2016,” Bureau of Labor Statistics website.
  25. Charles Figley and Beth Stamm. “Compassion Fatigue and Satisfaction Test for Helpers,” Darren Smith’s Hillsborough Community College homepage (1995).
  26. Brodsky, Moore, and Sams, supra n. 15.