“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”-Remen, 1996
This quote captures a very essential understanding for those of us who have chosen to care for others as a career. How many times have we heard the phrase “I don’t know how you do it; I know I never could” from friends and family? In part I believe that this is due to the fact that caring for others is something we are born to do, and we follow that path of caring and empathy to careers in medicine, social work and mental health care. We are taught over the course of our training that it will be difficult at times, but we are generally ill prepared for the toll caregiving can take on us emotionally.
Each day we are witness to people’s suffering, struggles and ultimately (hopefully) their triumphs. Seeing people heal can be healing for us, but it often takes more than this to help us stay balanced and healthy within our role as a caregiver. As caregivers, we are prone to what is called compassion fatigue or caregiver burn-out. It is important for us to recognize the signs and symptoms of these conditions for our own health and so we can keep doing what we love to do to the best of our ability.
What is compassion fatigue/caregiver burnout?
Both terms have been described similarly as: “Deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of our career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses.”
What are some of the signs and symptoms?
• Feeling helpless and hopeless—what difference am I really making here? What’s the point?
• A sense that one can never do enough.
• Fatigue, emotional distress, or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others.
• Diminished creativity-doing just enough to get through the day
• Minimizing your own or other people’s suffering (for example, something difficult happens and we say something like “Well, at least something worse didn’t happen”).
• Chronic Exhaustion / Illness (side note, when was the last time you went to the doctor for your own health?)
• Increased use of alcohol or use of other drugs
• Difficulty separating work life from personal life
If you recognize some of these signs and symptoms, or you recognize that you are feeling burnt out, fear not! There are things you can do to combat compassion fatigue and burn out that will allow you to keep doing the work you love while providing the best possible care to others.
1. Make balance a priority in your life:
a. Practice self-care
b. Nurture yourself by putting activities in your schedule that are sources of pleasure and joy. This can include simple 5 minute activities (getting coffee, sending a message to family/friends or watching something funny) or something bigger like a vacation.
c. Get medical treatment if needed to relieve symptoms that interfere with daily functioning (seriously, go to the doctor!)
d. Get professional help when needed to get back on track- we all need coaches and consultants at times
2. Create a self-care plan: We often feel as if we don’t have time for the very things that will keep us healthy and able to continue this work. Learning to make time to take care of yourself takes time if you are not in the habit of doing it, but studies show that it is essential to our continual well-being.
a. Recharge your batteries daily. Something as simple as committing to eat better and stopping all other activities while eating can have an exponential benefit on both your psyche and your physical body.
b. A regular exercise regimen can reduce stress, help you achieve outer balance and re-energize you for time with family and friends.
c. Hold one focused, connected and meaningful conversation each day. This will jump start even the most depleted batteries. Time with family and close friends feeds the soul like nothing else and sadly seems to be the first thing to go when time is scarce.
d. Cultivate mindfulness: Learning mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to ground yourself in the moment and keep your thoughts from pulling you in different directions. This can be an essential tool when working with others. We do our best work when we are present.
3. Identify your Boundaries
a. Clarify your personal boundaries. What works for you? What doesn't?
b. Do your best to leave your personal life at the door
c. Do your best to leave your work at work
d. Have a separate cell phone for work that you can turn off after work
e. If you are done at 5pm, LEAVE at 5pm
f. Learning to say “No” to more work when you have a full plate
Recommended reading (both were sources for this article):
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others
by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky, Connie Burk
By Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC. Compassion Fatigue Specialist
(Published in Rehab & Community Care Medicine, Spring 2007)
Please remember one important thing if you recognize that you may be experiencing compassion fatigue or burn-out: feeling this way does not mean you are a “bad” person or somehow inadequate to do your job. Compassion fatigue is a job hazard, just like falling objects are a job hazard for a construction worker. The construction worker takes steps to avoid the potential injury (wearing a hard hat, obeying signage and staying out of dangerous areas). They learn the tricks and tools to minimize the potential for injury; shouldn’t we as caregivers do the same?