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    The Toll of Trauma: Key Study Findings

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 84, No. 12, December 2011

    The study found that SPD attorneys reported significantly higher levels of compassion fatigue than administrative support staff and the general population, when data for the latter were available for comparison. The study’s findings break down by specific symptoms of compassion fatigue as follows.

    “A major finding of our study,” Dr. Andrew Levin reports, “is that the extent of caseload and lawyers’ exposure to other people’s trauma were clearly related to symptoms of compassion fatigue.” Interestingly, factors such as years on the job, age, office size, gender, and personal history of trauma made no significant differences in compassion fatigue levels.


    Depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, low energy, poor concentration, feelings of guilt or low self-worth

    • General population: 10 percent

    • SPD administrative support staff: 19.3 percent

    • SPD attorneys: 39.5 percent

    Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

    PTSD, triggered by a terrifying event; symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, uncontrollable thoughts

    • General population: 7 percent

    • SPD support staff: 1 percent

    • SPD attorneys: 11 percent

    Functional Impairment

    The extent to which exposure to traumatic material interferes with functioning in work, social/leisure life, and family/home life

    • SPD support staff: 27.5 percent

    • SPD attorneys: 74.8 percent

    Secondary Traumatic Stress

    The “cost of caring” about another person who has experienced trauma; symptoms are similar to those of PTSD

    • SPD support staff: 10.1 percent

    • SPD attorneys: 34 percent


    Job-induced physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about one’s competence and the value of one’s work

    • SPD support staff: 8.3 percent

    • SPD attorneys: 37.4 percent

    Compassion Satisfaction

    The study also measured “compassion satisfaction,” or the pleasure derived from one’s work. Reports of high levels of satisfaction were as follows:

    • SPD support staff: 25.7 percent

    • SPD attorneys: 19.3 percent

    What the Numbers Mean

    Are we to conclude from the key findings that SPD attorneys are impaired on the job? Absolutely not, says Dr. Andrew Levin, medical director at the Westchester Jewish Community Center in Hartsdale, N.Y., and cofacilitator of the study. Bear in mind, he emphasizes, these results come from self-reporting instruments, which indicate trends, not diagnoses of conditions.

    Take, for instance, the depression statistic. “It shows that almost 40 percent of attorneys are over the threshold number on the depression inventory,” Levin explains. “That does not mean they have a clinical diagnosis of depression. All it means is that they have a likelihood for being at risk for depression.”

    Likewise, the functional impairment measure doesn’t mean SPD lawyers are failing to function well on the job. “It may mean, for example, that you had a tough day at work,” Levin explains, “and when you got home you weren’t able to pay as much attention to your family as you would have liked, or you were irritable. Your job is interfering with your home life.”

    If anything, the data show just how resilient the study participants are, Albert points out. “Despite the fact that they endure ongoing exposure to trauma and have these high caseloads, they continue to meet the requirements of their employment,” she says. “It’s amazing that they do. They are handling the demands of the job, but not easily and not without it having an impact on their lives.”

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