We are taught from an early age to care for others, encouraged to put the needs of others before our own. This parental/educational coaching instils a well-developed sense of empathy and compassion.

Working for a period of time in the caregiving field, carries the risk of developing “Compassion Fatigue”. This sounds negative. However it is an affirmation of a truly caring nature. We need to understand the issue and how it can be managed.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is caused by the weight of constantly supporting and listening empathically to those who are experiencing loss or traumatic experience. It can be a heavy emotional and physical burden for the supporter to bear. Unmanaged it will have implications on health and wellbeing.

How do you recognise the signs of compassion fatigue?

Over time, diminishing compassion, self-doubt, anxiety and depression can lead to illness and industry burnout.  If you are working closely with people in a caring role, it is vitally important to have an awareness of how you are feeling and behaving:

Do you feel:

  • disconnected from your work, the environment and the people you care for
  • exhaustion, particularly emotional exhaustion
  • that your work performance has dropped
  • cynical, apathetic, or disconnected from others
  • a decreased physical, emotional, and spiritual energy?

All of these are potentially signs of Compassion Fatigue. Onset is usually quick and confusing for everyone.

Who experiences Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can often be associated with people in high stress jobs such as firefighters, police officers and doctors. Although prevalent in these professions, compassion fatigue is just as relevant and present for nurses, counsellors, disability workers, aged care workers, teachers and lawyers, as well as those who work in the domestic violence, drug and alcohol arenas.

Compassion fatigue is not limited to our workplace experiences. Indeed the home environment can be the catalyst for developing compassion fatigue. There are countless instances of families who express confusion and loss when someone withdraws from the family.  In a lot of cases, the individual has been the primary carer for the rest of the family during a traumatic event and has forgotten to practise self-care, depleting their emotional energy stores.  In order to function in the carer role, whilst protecting physical and mental health, the carer needs to find a way to replenish their depleted emotional energy and to find a way to replenish it.

The Solution:

Awareness is the first step, prevention the second, with self-care being the anchor.

We need to be aware of our feelings and emotions, our level of empathy and how much is being asked of us.

Keeping a balance is important.

Compassion fatigue can start when you work long hours or over a long period of time, dealing with people in abnormal, stressful or traumatic situations.  Taking time to practice self-care becomes critically important.

Counsellors, and other professions, have a process called Professional Supervision. The Australian Association of Supervision (AAOS), defines supervision as “a professional contracted relationship between a trained supervisor and a practitioner”. This relationship allows time for reflection, problem solving, and development of professional competence, resilience and confidence.

If you are working in an area where this structure doesn’t exist you may like to consider finding a coach or mentor or creating self-help groups with some of your work colleagues. Time for critical reflection is crucial as is the opportunity to problem solve with others.

Yes, talking with someone who can understand and explore issues with you is a fundamental action.

There are many self-help techniques in addition to this:   

  1. reduce your workload or see fewer clients
  2. take time away from work, without viewing this as an indulgence
  3. establish clear work-life boundaries
  4. calendar time for things you enjoy – talking to friends, reading, going  to the cinema, sky diving etc
  5. eat healthy meals
  6. take regular exercise
  7. practice mindfulness
  8. set clear boundaries (no one should be on call 24 hours a day)
  9. avoid taking work home – if you must work from home, create a space separate to your living space, so that the work does not encroach on leisure/family time
  10. seek help.

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