If you work in a professional setting that routinely deals with the care or trauma of others, you may experience a condition known as compassion fatigue.
People whose professions lead to prolonged exposure to other people’s trauma can be vulnerable to compassion fatigue, also known as secondary or vicarious trauma. This may be mild, or someone may experience acute symptoms that risk their physical and mental health. Identifying if someone is experiencing compassion fatigue and treating it is important.
Empathy is a valuable trait for health care professionals and carers. But the more we open ourselves up to others’ pain, the more likely we will come to share feelings of heartbreak and devastation. This saps our ability to cope with secondary trauma, which can lead to mental and physical exhaustion.
What Is a Compassion Fatigue?
The term compassion fatigue describes the physical, emotional, and mental effects of helping others. Burnout is a component of this type of fatigue, but compassion fatigue encompasses much more than just burnout. It can impact a wide range of caregivers and professions. It is most common among professionals who work in a healing or helping capacity. If you are a medical professional, therapist, first responder, nurse, or caregiver, compassion fatigue may affect you.
Compassion fatigue occurs when triggers and experiences begin to affect your outside-of-work thoughts, moods, and well-being. Being affected by your work is a normal aspect of professions involving caregiving; however, when the feelings become overwhelming, you may be suffering from compassion fatigue.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Compassion fatigue is characterised by exhaustion, disturbed sleep, anxiety, headaches, stomach upset, irritability, numbness, a diminished sense of purpose, emotional disconnection, self-contempt, and experiencing difficulties in interpersonal relationships.
Burnout is distinct from compassion fatigue. Burnout is the result of feeling drained from daily stressors such as work and childrearing responsibilities. Compassion fatigue is the strain of experiencing the suffering of others. However, the symptoms often resemble those of burnout.
How to treat Compassion Fatigue
It is common for caregivers and many professionals to feel overwhelmed by their work. Emotional and physical fatigue is a common element of compassion fatigue. For many, taking time to look after yourself can help. This can include:
- eating well
- staying hydrated
- getting enough sleep
- staying active
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your work as a caregiver or health professional, it is important to reach out for professional help.
Understanding compassion fatigue
When we are not mindful of the consistent need for self-care, other care may suffer. Self-care should be viewed as an ongoing preventative activity and a priority of all professionals, especially for those working with, and constantly hearing stories from clients, that are saturated with themes of daily stress, grief, loss, anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress.
In the book ‘The resilient practitioner – burnout and compassion fatigue prevention and self-care strategies for the helping professions, the authors discuss self-care from a professional and personal standpoint. They offer the following strategies.
With work and information overload, it can seem like there is always too much to do. We can easily find ourselves working overtime, working weekends, constantly being on the phone, emails, meetings, and of course, the disappearance of boundaries. We must set boundaries, and to do that, we must set realistic expectations and learn to say no.
Support from colleagues
Colleagues can be an important source of support. Have several colleagues that you can turn to for support and advice. Debriefing with colleagues can be an opportunity to talk about our thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Remember confidentiality does not prevent us from speaking about our own experiences.
Celebrate small wins
Too easily and too often we can get caught up in wanting to make a big change and big difference for ourselves. And often this makes us feel more ambivalent and resistant to change and makes improvement less possible. Reducing expectations and focusing on small steps and celebrating small successes can be more empowering.
Long term development
Build professional care into a long-term adventure of your career. Be open and non-defensive to new information and feedback. Find out ways for ongoing development. This can be done through professional development or self-development through reading, reflection, professional supervision from a senior or a mentor or a combination of these.
Focus on the controllable
Sometimes the work we do may not always be appreciated or recognised, and we may begin to wonder about the meaning of our work. We must continue to reflect on our expert knowledge and the working alliance that we can develop with our clients because they are the two dimensions, we have control over.
How Do You Combat Compassion Fatigue?
California-based licensed psychotherapist Natalie Jones, PsyD who is well researched and published on compassion fatigue provides the following advice “The best way to combat compassion fatigue is to be mindful about your energy and your own space and be intentional about protecting it. The key is to set boundaries – with yourself, friends and family, your job, and social media”.
Ultimately, compassion fatigue is something that most people will experience, she says. But “you have to remember that you cannot pour from an empty cup. You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can show up for anybody else.”
At Integrity Care and Support, we understand the services our staff provide to our clients and are mindful to provide an open environment where self-care is important. We have mentors whom our staff can call to debrief with who also provide regular phone check-ins with staff and drop in to visit staff on shifts to see how they are going.
We also have an EAP program that staff can access for counselling. Finally, we remind our team of the importance of letting us know what is going on if they are feeling overwhelmed or need a mental health break from their duties. Being conscious of the symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout amongst our staff is a high priority.