Preventing Compassion Fatigue: Self-Care Tips for People in the Helping Industry
Last Updated: 23 Sep 2023
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Compassion fatigue is real. Here’s how to prevent and treat the symptoms.
Compassion is a driving force behind the work of professionals in the helping industry, from healthcare providers and social workers to caregivers and mental health practitioners. At Endeavors, we prioritize compassion so much that it’s one of our core values. It’s the empathy and genuine concern for others that fuel our dedication to making a positive impact. However, there’s a hidden challenge that often lurks behind these noble intentions: compassion fatigue. In this blog post, we’ll delve into what compassion fatigue is, its symptoms, treatment, and most importantly, how to prevent it.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue, though frequently associated with healthcare and social service providers, can affect anyone who regularly engages in emotionally demanding work or caregiving roles. Dr. John-Henry Pfifferling and Kay Gilley, from the Center for Professional Well-Being, aptly define compassion fatigue as “a deep physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain.” It’s essentially a depletion of emotional energy, resulting in feelings of indifference, ambivalence, or apathy towards the needs of others, despite genuinely caring.
Regional Director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinics at Endeavors, Kristy Dean adds that in helping industries (such as social work, psychology and psychiatry, and the medical field) “helping professionals can be negatively impacted by the outpouring of empathy and indirect exposure to trauma imagery.”
Recognizing the Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue manifests differently in each individual, but there are 14 common compassion fatigue warning signs:
- Abusing Substances: Using drugs, alcohol, or food as coping mechanisms.
- Anger: Frequent outbursts of anger, often misplaced.
- Blaming: Assigning blame to oneself or others for the emotional toll.
- Chronic Lateness: Struggling to meet commitments and deadlines.
- Depression: Sinking into a prolonged state of sadness and hopelessness.
- Physical and Emotional Exhaustion: Feeling drained on both physical and emotional levels.
- High Self-Expectations, Low Accomplishment: Setting lofty goals but struggling to achieve them.
- Hopelessness: Losing faith in the effectiveness of your work.
- Inability to Balance Empathy and Objectivity: Finding it hard to maintain empathy while staying objective.
- Increased Irritability: Becoming easily annoyed or frustrated.
- Decreased Ability to Feel Joy: Struggling to find happiness in everyday life.
- Low Self-Esteem: Feeling undervalued and lacking self-worth.
- Trouble Sleeping: Experiencing disrupted sleep patterns.
- Workaholism: Overcommitting and working excessively to avoid personal issues.
Compassion Fatigue Vs. Vicarious Trauma Vs. Burnout
The term “compassion fatigue” is often used interchangeably with “vicarious trauma” or burnout,” but they’re actually different concepts.
- Vicarious Trauma is experiencing someone else’s trauma through them and experiencing intrusive thoughts, replaying the images, and feeling that another’s trauma is their own.
(Ie. A psychologist who begins having dreams of what his soldier clients describe in their sessions.)
- Burnout is the result of prolonged stress without adequate recovery. Symptoms include irritability, exhaustion, powerlessness, sleep issues, anger, and rumination.
Kristy Dean explains the connection between these three phenomena: “Vicarious trauma can lead to compassion fatigue, which if unmanaged, can lead to burnout.”
“Over time,” Dean elaborates, “compassion fatigue begins to change us. We go from empathic responses to jaded demeanors. The body begins to let you know that things are not okay through sleep issues, lack of appetite, stress eating, etc. Oftentimes we start to experience workaholism to avoid our feelings. This can also turn into harmful mental health and wellness problems such as depression, anxiety, addictions, obesity, and immune disorders.”
Treating Compassion Fatigue
But what if you already have some symptoms of compassion fatigue? How do you mitigate and treat those symptoms? We asked Dr. Jill Palmer, Chief of Behavioral Health at Endeavors, for her professional tips.
“Planned time away from work is huge,” she says. “I think too many of us rely on one annual vacation to magically reset everything. I like to make a habit of taking one extra day on a long weekend. If you’re having extreme symptoms, then you may need professional support and, in severe cases, pharmacological help.”
Dr. Palmer also stresses the importance of taking a hard look at your career and considering a job or career change if the source of your compassion fatigue feels too deeply rooted in your work environment. “Sometimes that’s not necessary, though,” she adds, “and when the symptoms are overwhelming, a temporary leave of absence can provide the necessary respite.”
A way to start immediately treating compassion fatigue is to set work boundaries. “You have to be able to say, I want to be here and do this work,” Dr. Palmer advises. “But I want to continue doing it for 20, 30, 40 years. And for that to be possible, I need to not continually work 10- or 12-hour days, week after week.”
Prevention: The Key to Long-Term Well-being
Preventing compassion fatigue is as crucial as treating it. Dr. Palmer highlights 7 key strategies for safeguarding your emotional health:
- Set Boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life. Avoid letting the demands of your profession encroach on your personal well-being.
- Define Intentions and Goals: Clearly define your intentions and professional goals. Putting them in writing can provide clarity and motivation.
- Regular Self-Assessment: Continuously evaluate your emotional state and the balance between empathy and objectivity.
- Seek Supportive Relationships: Foster relationships with colleagues and mentors who can provide emotional support and understanding.
- Acknowledge Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs): Recognize how your past experiences may have drawn you to the helping profession but also made you vulnerable to compassion fatigue. Develop strategies to compensate for these vulnerabilities.
- Goal Setting: Write down your intentions and set clear goals. Research suggests that writing out intentions and goals increases the likelihood of achieving them.
- Stress Management: Adopt stress management techniques, such as meditation, exercise, or deep breathing, to build emotional resilience.
Compassion fatigue is a real and prevalent issue in the helping industry, but it can affect anyone who invests emotionally in their work. Recognizing the signs, seeking treatment when needed, and focusing on prevention are essential steps to maintain your well-being while continuing to make a positive impact on others.
Remember—taking care of yourself is not a selfish act; it’s a necessary one to ensure that you can continue to provide the support and care that others depend on.
Endeavors is a longstanding national non-profit that provides an array of programs and services in support of children, families, Veterans, and those struggling with mental illness and other disabilities. Endeavors serves vulnerable people in crisis through innovative personalized services. For more information, please visit endeavors.org.