When Caring Leads to Burnout
A few months ago, I was interviewed on the topic of compassion fatigue for an article that appeared in Healing and Recovery, compiled by the United Way of Rutherford County (North Carolina). This month, I was invited by that community to present a workshop on the topic. I wanted to share the information in a slightly modified version with you here, because I know many of you work in the helping professions and/or serve as family caregivers.
Is burnout the same as compassion fatigue?
Often we use the word “burnout” interchangeably with compassion fatigue. According to the Mayo clinic*, “Job burnout is a special type of job stress —a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.” Some researchers consider burnout to be a subcategory of compassion fatigue, when referring to the helping professions.
Who is most at risk for compassion fatigue?
Think about it this way: high achieving accountants and engineers sometimes feel burned out. But health care and public service workers, as well as family caregivers, demonstrate deep empathy for their clients every day. Our clients are typically struggling with physical and mental health challenges, addiction, or a serious life crisis. Or all three at once! Helping professionals often feel drained by hearing clients’ graphic stories of trauma. Over time, workers internalize their clients’ pain while providing emotional and material support within the constraints of a complex system of limited community resources.
What are the warning signs of compassion fatigue?
Have you heard the phrase “helping that hurts”? Healthcare and social service professionals often enter the field due to a deep desire to help others. One of the first signs of burnout is reduced empathy for clients. Physical and emotional changes are common: including anger, fatigue, and anxiety. You might hear someone experiencing compassion fatigue say “my heart isn’t in it anymore” or “I dread coming to work.” Sometimes, this attitude can infect an entire team, and as a result, burnout becomes normalized. When compassion fatigue becomes chronic, staff will likely have increased absenteeism, increased incidence of errors, and a cynical style of communication.
How does your personal history affect your risk for compassion fatigue?
We are all dealing with our own stuff: clients and helpers alike. Anyone with a history of trauma or with an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score over 6 is at higher risk for physical and mental health challenges, regardless of their career. A healthcare professional who is coping with chronic illness or recovery from substance use disorder is more likely to show symptoms of compassion fatigue during stressful times. Ongoing support and adequate self-care habits are crucial to maintain balance.
What can leaders do to manage the risk of compassion fatigue at work?
Managers play a vital role in recognizing and honoring workplace attitudes and values that reduce the risk of compassion fatigue. Leaders set the tone by modeling unconditional positive regard for clients and the importance of taking time off from the office. “Family first” policies are great, but taking care of yourself tends to get overlooked. How many of us readily take time off to bring a child or parent to a medical appointment, but then procrastinate in scheduling our own yearly physical exam? Service providers who feel supported and appreciated, working in an environment that honors the importance of self-care, will feel better equipped to support clients at the highest level of care.
What are some practical ways to deal with compassion fatigue?
1. A practical short term solution is to allow yourself mini breaks throughout the day. Just 3 to 5 minutes every two hours will do. Retreat to a quiet place, (use the bathroom if it is the only private spot!) set the timer on your phone, close your eyes, and just breathe. Focus on breathing in slowly for 4 seconds, then exhaling slowly for 6 seconds. This quick relaxation exercise will bring a sense of calm to your nervous system.
2. Long term solutions require planning, but the most critical choice you can make is to take at least one half day off every 8-10 weeks. Does that sound more stressful than relaxing? I urge you to reconsider. Putting your own health first will allow you to serve your clients and your team more effectively.
3. Remember your WHY. On our hardest work days, it can be difficult to recall exactly why we chose this career path. But if you thought about it for a minute, you would remember what called you to this work. Was it to serve others? To give back to your community? Because your family experienced similar hardship? Was it a faith-driven decision?
4. The physical and mental health benefits of expressing daily gratitude are well-documented. Even during stressful times, find one reason to be thankful and say it out loud or write it down. This can be as simple as feeling grateful for the shoes on your feet or your morning coffee. Expressing appreciation to a colleague will offer you both an extra boost to brighten the day.
What should you do next?
Measure your own experience with compassion fatigue using this free, research-based assessment:
If you are feeling burned out by your work or caregiving role, call me for information on how integrative therapy can help. I can help you create a practical plan, with realistic strategies, for coping with career and caregiver burnout.
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