Compassion Fatigue

Where to get Help Burnout Vicarious Trauma

Compassion fatigue has been described as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional pain (Figley, 1982).
The helping field has gradually begun to recognize that workers are profoundly affected by the work they do. Whether it is by direct exposure to traumatic events (for example, working as a paramedic, police officer, emergency hospital worker); secondary exposure (hearing clients talk about trauma they have experienced, helping people who have just been victimized, working as child protection workers); or the full gamut in between (such as working with clients who are chronically in despair, witnessing people’s struggle to improve their very difficult life circumstances or feeling helpless in the face of poverty and emotional anguish).
The work of helping requires professionals to open their hearts and minds to their clients and patients – unfortunately, this very process of empathy is what makes helpers vulnerable to being profoundly affected and even possibly damaged by their work.
(Source: https://www.tendacademy.ca/what-is-compassion-fatigue/)

The following list of signs and symptoms is adapted from Mathieu, F., 2012.

  • Physical/emotional exhaustion
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Increased risk of illness
  • Stress-related physical ailments or anxiety about physical health
  • Depression
  • Use of substances or addictive behaviours
  • Missing work
  • Resentment/anger/irritability
  • Exaggerated sense of responsibility
  • Avoidance of duties associated with your helping role/responsibilities
  • Dread of working with particular clients
  • Compromised care for clients
  • Quitting/Sick Leave
  • Distancing yourself from others
  • Impaired ability to make decisions
  • Forgetfulness
  • Problems in personal relationships
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy/empathy
  • Feeling cynical toward colleagues, clients, family, friends
  • Negative thoughts about self and skills
  • Feeling helpless/hopeless or unable to make a difference
  • Diminished sense of enjoyment
  • “Zoning/spacing out”
  • Alteration of world views and heightened anxiety/fear (i.e. ability to see the world as a safe place)
  • Increased sense of personal vulnerability
  • Inability to tolerate strong feelings
  • Problems with intimacy
  • Hypervigilance (heightened awareness of potential threats as a result of your work)
  • Intrusive imagery
  • Hypersensitivity or insensitivity to emotional material/situations
  • Difficulty separating personal and professional lives
  • Failure to nurture personal aspects of life

Strategies for addressing compassion fatigue can be professional, organizational and personal.

Organizational/Professional:

  • Creating awareness of compassion fatigue and the impacts on a person in the workplace helps to normalize the experience for helpers
  • Developing a supportive work environment that encourages debriefing of work related material
  • Taking regular breaks, mental health days and availing of peer support
  • Assessing and changing workload which may involve rebalancing caseload and workload reduction
  • Improving access to professional development and training
  • Providing opportunities for staff to safely discuss the impact of work on their personal and professional lives

Personal:

  • Improving self-care (taking time for hobbies and personal “feel good” interests)
  • Maintaining social support both at home and at work
  • Increasing self-awareness (tuning in to your stress signals)
  • Reflecting on current feelings and reactions as well as the influences of past experiences
  • Monitoring your work-life balance
  • Checking in on your job satisfaction
  • Limiting exposure to trauma related material (i.e. news stories, movies)
  • Accessing regular coaching/counseling and supervision to counterbalance any existing vulnerability (e.g. personal trauma history)