Angela D. Diver, LISW, LICDC, Executive Director of Reach EAP shares her expertise on how to address compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue is a term that many of us have heard and usually associate with helping professions. This can include healthcare workers, those in social services, behavioral health specialists and educators who often choose their profession because they want to help people. But exposure to the trauma and suffering of others on a regular basis can have a deep impact on these workers. “Compassion fatigue” is a response to the stress of caring for people at times of crisis and is often referred to as the cost of caring.
According to the group, Charter for Compassion, researchers first identified compassion fatigue in the 1970s when they recognized certain psychological symptoms among health care workers. The term “compassion fatigue” was coined in the early 1990s to describe nurses who worked in emergency care and were experiencing symptoms similar to burnout.
Compassion fatigue has been updated to now be defined as a “combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for people in significant emotional pain and physical distress”. If left untreated, compassion fatigue can cause burnout and ultimately depression.
Who gets compassion fatigue?
The prevalence of compassion fatigue ranges from 7.3% to 40% of workers in intensive care settings. The higher prevalence is often seen in health professionals who repeatedly witness and care for people after trauma. Compassion fatigue can affect anyone in a caring profession: nurses, police officers, mental health workers, counselors, family therapists, hospice workers, doctors and emergency care workers. It is more common in women because they’re more likely to work in caring roles. Compassion fatigue is more likely to affect inexperienced professionals and people who help others in short-term spurts. These people may not have the same coping mechanisms and debriefing opportunities as those who repeatedly work in trauma and care-giving.
Burnout or compassion fatigue?
Untreated or unmanaged compassion fatigue can lead to burnout, but the two conditions are not the same. Burnout is related to the job environment in which we work and the stressors attached to those jobs and requirements, such as paperwork or poor supervision, management or support. It is equally common among men and women. However, there is a significant overlap between compassion fatigue and burnout symptoms. These include:
- decreased concentration
- minimization of one type of loss over another
- preoccupation with trauma
- loss of purpose
- impaired immune system
- bottled-up emotions
- substance abuse to mask feelings
- mental and physical tiredness
- being in denial about problems.
People who experience compassion fatigue or burnout are taking on the issues they witness without an appropriate outlet. They then “store” these issues – like storing toxins inside your body – which then compromises their immune system. Compassion fatigue often has a quick onset, whereas burnout is a prolonged response to chronic job-related emotional and inter-personal stressors. If untreated, prolonged burnout (three to six months) can lead to depression.
An awareness of the symptoms and their negative effect on your life can lead to positive change, personal transformation, and resiliency. If you think you are showing signs of compassion fatigue, consider calling your EAP or talking to another professional. If you take time off of work to “reset”, talk to someone about your feelings and experiences to learn how to process the symptoms and feelings.
There are some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing compassion fatigue:
- Have a strong and supportive team around you that you can debrief with both personally and professionally.
- Get regular supervision or mentorship. It is vitally important to be able to talk to someone more experienced in your field to explore your feelings and what has occurred. Think of supervision as an opportunity to process with a peer.
- Continue to do professional development activities and “grow” personally and professionally. Try to expand your knowledge in various areas rather than being singularly focused. This will help build resilience, broaden your perspective and give you greater experience with different aspects of your work.
- When you know things are getting difficult, take a break. If you continue to “work through” it, the fatigue will get worse and burnout will set it.
- Start thinking to yourself: when is enough, enough? Take positive steps to action change in your life.
- If you think that your compassion fatigue symptoms are increasing through social media, watching news and so on, then be sure to switch off, put down the technology, and do something that you enjoy with people you enjoy being around. Refocus on yourself and your life.