Secondary traumatic stress in nurses: a systematic review

Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 2011 Feb;25(1):1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2010.05.005. Epub 2010 Jul 23.


Background: Is there a "cost of caring" for health care providers of traumatized patients?

Objectives: The aim of this study is to review the literature on secondary traumatic stress in nurses in order to answer the following questions: What studies have been conducted on secondary traumatic stress in nurses in all clinical specialties? What instruments were used to measure secondary traumatic stress in nurses and what psychometric properties were reported?

Design: A systematic review.

Data sources: CINAHL, PubMed, and PsycINFO databases were searched for the years 1981 to the present. Keywords used in the database searches included secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization, secondary trauma, PTSD, and nurses.

Review methods: Research studies were reviewed for the following inclusion criteria: the sample included nurses, the secondary traumatic stress symptoms were measured, and the language was English.

Results: Seven studies were found in which researchers examined secondary traumatic stress in nurses. The samples in five of these studies consisted of all nurses, whereas in the remaining two studies, nurses were included in the samples but the results were not specifically reported for the subgroup of nurses. Presence of secondary traumatic stress was reported in forensic nurses, emergency department nurses, oncology nurses, pediatric nurses, and hospice nurses. Three instruments were identified that measured secondary traumatic stress in practitioners who care for traumatized populations: Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale, Compassion Fatigue Self Test for Helpers, and the Compassion Fatigue Scale-Revised.

Conclusions: Presence of secondary traumatic stress in nurses was reported in all of the studies included in this literature review. The use of small samples and a number of different instruments to measure secondary traumatic stress symptoms, however, hindered the ability to make comparisons across studies and to draw conclusions. None of the studies conducted to date have focused on secondary traumatic stress in psychiatric nurses. Suggestions for future research and clinical implications for what can be done to protect nurses from secondary traumatic stress are addressed.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Empathy
  • Humans
  • Nurse-Patient Relations
  • Nurses / psychology*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic* / diagnosis
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic* / etiology
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic* / prevention & control
  • Wounds and Injuries / nursing*