Compassion fatigue is much more than an elephant in the room, it’s an elephant across the whole health and care sector. Research has suggested its lifetime prevalence could be anywhere between 40-85% in the helping professions.
The term ‘compassion fatigue’ tends to be used interchangeably with burnout but they are not the same thing. Burnout develops over time and is associated with physical and mental exhaustion from your work environment. Compassion fatigue is a specific type of burnout that results from exposure to the trauma and distress of others you care for and its onset can be much quicker.
What Causes Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is caused by being exposed to another person’s trauma or distress. If you’re in a caring role, you probably don't need me to highlight that exposure to this can be a frequent occurrence and it can take it's toll. We're emotional beings and it's only natural that we are affected by this exposure. This doesn’t automatically mean you’ll develop compassion fatigue but it does mean you are more vulnerable to it due to the nature of your work.
An additional risk factor is workplace cultures that constrain your ability to adequately carry out your caring roles. Essentially, if you go to work feeling that you’re not able to do your job caring for others well and in the way you feel is right, this can further increase this vulnerability. Things that can contribute to this may include challenges with staffing levels, difficult or negative relationships with colleagues, and working longer than your contracted hours.
Who suffers from Compassion fatigue?
Given that compassion fatigue is caused by exposure to the distress and trauma of others, it’s perhaps unsurprising that healthcare, emergency and community service staff are the most likely to develop it. Higher empathy has also been associated with higher risk of compassion fatigue.
What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is not a medical condition, but it is a problem that can be characterised by:
• A state of physical and mental exhaustion.
• Feelings of anger and irritability.
• The use of unhelpful coping behaviours, such as substance abuse.
• A reduced ability to feel empathy.
• A reduced sense of enjoyment or satisfaction with work.
• Increased absenteeism from work.
• An impaired ability to make decisions related to the care of others at work.
This can leave you feeling unable to cope, doubting yourself and your abilities, and feeling like your confidence and self-esteem has taken a knock. It can also leave you questioning your sense of identity. If you see yourself as someone who cares, shows kindness and gives to others and you have chosen a vocation built around these values, a diminished ability to do this as a result of compassion fatigue may cause you to feel a lost sense of identity and purpose. The combination of all of the above can then then increase your vulnerability to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
How Can we Prevent Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is often referred to as ‘the cost of caring.’ This suggests this is an inevitable part of being in a caring role when in fact, a lot can be done to reduce the risk of this. Research has suggested that taking time to regularly focus on yourself and your wellbeing can be a protective factor. When your role is to care for others, it is important to extend the same care to yourself. Taking time for self-reflection, practicing self-care and self-compassion are three approached you can take to look after yourself. Building positive relationships with colleagues and taking regular breaks during work can also help.
Support for Compassion Fatigue
If you relate to this and think you’ve been experiencing compassion fatigue, it may be helpful to talk this through with someone who can support you. At work, this may be a manager, mentor or supervisor you have a good relationship with. For professional support with your mental health, you may wish to talk things through on a 1:1 basis through therapy.
Developing skills to support stress reduction, relaxation and build resilience have all been found to have positive effects on compassion fatigue. It’s possible that your workplace may offer a wellbeing service that you can arrange this through, or you can also speak with your GP about your local NHS therapy services.
The important thing to remember is that you are not alone and support is available. Compassion Fatigue is affecting a large number of our helping professionals. By talking about this, we can play our part in stopping it from being an elephant in the room and focus on helping ourselves and each other in our roles looking after others.
How Brighter Minds Can Help
Take an hour out for yourself to focus on understanding and preventing compassion fatigue and creating your own wellbeing plan. You can sign up to our upcoming webinar here.
At Brighter Minds, we can offer support with compassion fatigue at an individual, team or organisational level. Get in touch to find out more.