Recently I seem to have been talking a lot about secondary stress with mission workers.  It’s a common though relatively unrecognised problem among overseas workers, particularly those working in compassion ministries or among poorer communities.  Secondary stress is the burden we take on not as a result of our own working or living conditions, but those of others.  It’s not excess baggage so much as other people’s baggage.  It’s what we pick up when we try to lighten the load on others who are already weighed down.

It is perfectly natural to feel a degree of anguish when working, for example, in a refugee camp, or when counselling others who have problems.  We would be pretty heartless if we were not affected by the tragedies we witness or the grief we hear about.  Our resulting compassion should spur us to more action to help the afflicted.  But when we can’t sleep at night because of it, or have images we can’t get out of our heads, it is becoming hazardous to us, and even in the midst of a major humanitarian crisis we need to take some steps to ensure that we maintain ourselves in a condition to be able to continue to help those who need our help.

The first step in dealing with secondary stress is to recognise that we may be suffering with it, because we often don’t notice.  It creeps up on us, daily growing, until something goes wrong.  Because I’m involved in debriefing a lot of people, often with major problems, last summer I arranged a debrief for myself, not because I thought I needed it, but because it is good practice.  Only after I emerged emotionally exhausted from the debrief did I realise how much other people’s baggage I was carrying.

One excellent tool for doing an inventory on yourself is Dr Beth Stamm’s Professional Quality of Life Measure, which can be downloaded free of charge from the Headington Institute.  It is simple to use, and asks just 30 questions about your work in helping others.  There are also other useful self-assessment tools on stress, burnout and lifestyle inventory available from the same website.

Once you have recognised that your levels of secondary stress are unacceptable, put into action your usual anti-stress techniques – debrief, holidays, or relaxation.  See our stress archive for more suggestions.  If none of these suggestions work, and you are still showing symptoms of elevated stress levels, you should take medical leave of absence, extended rest and seek counselling or even the help of a professional psychotherapist.

If when you return to work things immediately get worse again, you should be reassigned.  This of course, will add to your stress as you will feel guilty that you have let needy people down, but if you are not sufficiently resilient to cope in this situation, you may end up being a needy person yourself, and it is better for you to move on and to let a more resilient person take over.

If you’d like to learn more about secondary stress I recommend you listen to Member Care Media’s 4-part podcast by Dr Brent Lindquist, who in addition to being excellently named really knows his stuff.  Each episode is packed with helpful information and the whole series will take you less than an hour to listen to, but much longer to work through!  There are also a lot of other good materials on the MemCare website which will help you to stay healthy.