How Marathon County Is Helping Protect Its Staff from Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS)

Written by Julie Jensen

Marathon County residents are best served by employees who are physically and mentally healthy. Thus, the County has invested in keeping its local government employees safe and healthy.

For many years, the focus of employee safety was on preventing things like back injuries, slips and falls, and carpal tunnel syndrome. But as officials learned more over the years, they came to understand that County employees could also be injured — both physically and mentally — simply by being exposed to:

  • People who have been traumatized themselves
  • People who inflict cruelty on others
  • Survivors recounting disturbing descriptions of traumatic events

This type of injury to County staff members is called “Secondary Traumatic Stress” (STS).

Why Is Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) Important to Address?

STS is a form of stress that results from indirect exposure to trauma. It can develop when a helping professional works with a traumatized person over a period of time. It can also take effect in response to helping someone through an egregious incident.

If left unaddressed, STS can have a detrimental impact on our employees. What’s more, if a staff member is suffering from a stress-related health issue, the families and individuals served by that employee will not receive the highest quality of public service.

Marathon County Government leaders have taken an active role in educating and supporting staff on the topic of Secondary Traumatic Stress in an effort to help protect the physical and mental health of employees most at risk for developing STS. Brad Karger, Marathon County Administrator, shared:

Marathon_County_Administrator_Brad_Karger“Marathon County cares about the health of its workers. We perform very difficult and often times dangerous work. Everyone recognizes the danger associated with law enforcement and work on our highways, but child protective services and other human services also have their dangers, which we have come to more fully appreciate recently.

Secondary Traumatic Stress was a topic that was addressed at the County’s 2019 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Day On”. While the County regularly offers education on this topic to its employees in the highest risk groups, the MLK “Day On” event gave the opportunity to employees working in government job categories not normally thought of as being at risk — like Veterans Services — the opportunity to learn how to protect themselves and their co-workers from STS.

Which Government Workers Are Most At Risk for Developing STS and Why?

In addition to court-related personnel, staff working in the following government departments are most vulnerable to STS:

  • Social Services
  • Medical Examiner’s Office
  • Health Department
  • Sheriff’s Office
  • Aging and Disability Resource Center

Employees working in a court setting or in one of these departments serve people who have been exposed to trauma. Trauma may include being subjected to abuse and neglect, being a victim of crime, experiencing loss due to a death of a loved one, or experiencing prolonged exposure to chronic medical conditions and other life-altering circumstances.

Working on a consistent basis with individuals who have experienced some form of trauma can result in such staff members experiencing symptoms associated with STS. Symptoms include being preoccupied with thoughts of people whom one has helped, which can become intrusive and interfere with his or her life outside of work.



Other symptoms include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Impaired memory
  • Difficulties making a decision
  • Headaches, stomach aches, and other physical symptoms

It’s important to note that STS is a naturally occurring condition and not a personal flaw.

What Training and Support Have Marathon County Staff Received in Regard to STS?

Marathon County staff within the departments listed above have participated in a 3-hour training session on STS — what it is, its symptoms, and what can be done to mitigate its impact on both personal and professional levels. Emphasis was placed on specific ideas for practicing resiliency to offset STS symptoms.

What each individual employee does to practice a healthy work–life balance and to take care of him- or herself is fundamental to building resiliency — or strength — to address the stress of working in these settings. Co-workers, supervisors, and County government as a whole must also appreciate the need for self-care in a variety of ways, including authorizing a break from work and truly listening to individuals who need support.



The next step is for each key department to develop its own agency STS work plan to fully support staff in reducing STS-related symptoms.

*  *  *

Ultimately, the investment in our staff brings better outcomes for those we serve. According to County Administrator Brad Karger:

Protecting employees from the impact of secondary stress is important because the best way to serve our residents is to ensure that our workforce is healthy and able to devote their full talent to providing for the safety and well-being of others. Additionally, we care about our employees and we want them to thrive both personally and professionally.” 

STS impacts more than just County workers. So, if you know of a friend, family member, or another you care about who might be at risk of Secondary Stress Syndrome, feel free to forward or share this article and encourage the person to learn more about STS.

Marathon County leadership is open to sharing its information, policies, and educational materials with individuals and employers. After all — we’re committed to being the healthiest county in the state of Wisconsin, and we realize that commitment extends well beyond our Marathon County Government workforce.

I invite you to email Administrator Brad Karger if you’d like further information related to STS in the workplace.

julie_jensenJulie Jensen

Social Work Supervisor  |  Marathon County Department of Social Services

Julie Jensen is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and holds a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Julie has been a supervisor with the Marathon County Department of Social Services for over 18 years. She has supervised a number of programs, including Ongoing Child Protective Services, Comprehensive Community Services, Foster Care, and the Children’s Long-Term Support program. Julie has also provided mental health services to children, youth, and families, including in-home family therapy, counseling services to victims of crime, mobile crisis intervention services, and outpatient community mental health counseling.

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Image credits:
Stressed image by TheDigitalArtist via Pixabay.
Self-care tree backdrop by uniquedesign52 via Pixabay.