Health & Wellness - Compassion Fatigue


Compassion Fatigue

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate (Tend Academy 2019). The term is most often used in reference to people who are in a health care or helping professionals where a person has to give their time, energy, and empathy to those in need (i.e. nurses, councillors, doctors etc.). For our purposes, the care we are usually doing is for the Earth, the oceans, the climate, and each other, depending on your personal journey. So, feel free to think about yourselves as care professionals if that helps you to better understand where your empathy, time and energy are going.

Another similar term that you’ll likely stumble across is burnout. Burnout can happen in any job where as compassion fatigue is often seen in ‘caring’ professions. Burnout is the more general term for physical and emotional exhaustion that workers experience when they have low job satisfaction, and feel powerless and/or overwhelmed at work. Burnout compared with compassion fatigue can usually be remediated by taking actions like changing jobs, lessening stress load, and changing unrewarding, work-related activities, where as compassion fatigue usually requires a less cut and dry approach.

How do we identify compassion fatigue in ourselves and others?

Some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue are:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Intrusive imagery
  • Feeling discouraged about the world
  • Hopelessness
  • Exhaustion and irritability
  • High attrition (leaving your field of work)
  • Negative outcomes (dispirited, cynical workers, boundary violations)

What factors contribute to compassion fatigue and burnout?

On an individual level, your current life circumstances, your history, your coping style, and your personality type will all define the ways in which compassion fatigue may impact you. Most people have other stressors in their lives and these can compound with your work stress to affect your coping capacity.

On a situational level, many helpers do work that others do not want to hear about because these situations may be socially undervalued, poorly understood, or may be depressing/saddening to listeners. This one is particularly important because a strong social community can really help to support those that may be at risk for compassion fatigue.

Work places can also contain certain negativities. This negativity is often a result of other workers feeling some sort of fatigue, burnout, or unhappiness themselves. Stressful work situations are also a large contributing factor to burnout, since you may be dealing with people/environments in chronic crises.

How can we pro-actively prevent/reduce compassion fatigue?

Do what you can to make sure you are working in a healthy working environment. Try to negotiate access to a supportive, flexible manager who is able to shift workload to reduce exposure to stressful situations, or triggers, for those dealing with difficult situations. Attending ongoing professional education to increase learning and sense of achievement can also help to improve job satisfaction and sense of growth. When possible, try to have more control over your schedule, since job satisfaction increases in individuals who have more control over their time.

Maintain a strong social support both at work and at home. Being in a supportive, understanding community can help to increase your resiliency to potential stressors and reduce stresses impact when it is unavoidable. Where possible, try to create social circles where individuals will be feeling or experiencing similar situations, especially those you experience in your work. This emphatic environment can really increase your sense of wellbeing a resiliency.  Increase your self-awareness, and therefore ability to identify harmful situations or personal sensitivities. There are lots of different ways to do this but you can try mindfulness meditation and narrative work (ex: journaling, artistic empathic expression). Regular self-care can come in many different forms and will be specific to the individual. Find what regenerates you and relieves feelings of stress. Some examples are time spent in nature, exercise, yoga, running errands or doing tasks you have been postponing, taking care of the ‘home’ environment (cleaning, taking care of ‘loose ends’, decorating), creative expression (painting, drawing, building/crafting), puzzles, Sunday night dinners, cat/puppy time, calling friends/family, and turning off your phone (toning down the tech.). Take note of what ‘recharges’ you and practice these when you are feeling tired, stressed, or worn out. Don’t feel like you have to be invincible and take the time you need for self-care activities.

What can we do once we start to feel the effects?

Engage in self-care strategies right away, whatever those may be for you, and consider taking a little time away from work to rest, regenerate, and prioritize your needs. Compassion fatigue and burnout can be pretty debilitating, so take care of yourself so you can do the work to take care of others and our Oceans.

When you are feeling the effects, one of the biggest ways to remediate and relieve these feelings can be to engage with people that have felt similarly in the past. Connecting with people who share similar work or similar issues and who understand your background or your experience can help so much. Camaraderie and mutual support can be a big contributor to relieving these feelings and helping you get back on your feet.

Stay connected to meaning. Why do you do the work you do? There are different reasons for all of us. Take time to reflect and connect with your personal reasons for engaging in this work. The more we stay connected to the joys, rewards, hopes and sense of purpose and meaning within our work, the more we can mitigate risks for burnout and compassion fatigue.

Engage in a reflective practice. Take a look at our mindfulness page and check out the resources there. There are many forms this practice can take (choose your favourite) and try a couple you wouldn’t otherwise. Learning a variety of different mindfulness practices can be like stocking a toolkit. Maybe there’s a strategy that works well for you in one situation, but less well in others. Figure out what works best for you… and feel free to give us a shout if you have any questions or need more resources (or if you find one you love that we haven’t already included).

Always keep in mind that there are resources out there to support you. I have attached a couple here and am happy to include more if you find some things that work for you that I have not listed here.

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