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 by:
- Direct exposure to traumatic events like working as a paramedic, police officer, emergency hospital worker, etc.
- Secondary exposure such as hearing people talk about trauma they have experienced, or helping people who have just been victimized. Some example of those at risk of secondary exposure include Child Protection Workers, Counsellors, Lawyers, those working inside a court room, etc.
- Working with individuals 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 hurting individuals. This very process of empathy is what makes helpers vulnerable to being profoundly affected and even possibly damaged by their work.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health advises that recognizing early warning signs and seeking early intervention are important as compassion fatigue can negatively impact your personal, social and occupational functioning and increase risk for burnout and mental health conditions.
Warning signs of compassion fatigue include:
- Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering
- Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness and anxiety
- Feeling detached from our surroundings or from our physical or emotional experience
- Feeling emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted, burnt out or numb
- Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches
- Reduced empathy
- Feeling hypersensitive or insensitive to stories we hear
- Limited tolerance for stress
- Self-isolation and withdrawal
- Relationship conflict
- Feeling less efficient or productive at work
- Reduced pleasure in activities we used to enjoy
- Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
- Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions
- Self-medicating and increase in substance use
Strategies for addressing compassion fatigue can be professional, organizational and personal.
- 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
- 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/counselling and supervision to counterbalance any existing vulnerability (e.g. personal trauma history)
- Practicing mindfulness daily by being present in the moment, and by being aware of your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations
- Learn stress reduction/relaxation techniques such as calm breathing, guided imagery, and visualization.
- Set aside time for meaningful activity that gives you a sense of purpose
- Take a break from social media
- Reach out for support