Contributed by: Heath Shackleford on behalf of CHC Wellbeing
If you work in the wellness industry, I’d like you to consider yourself part of a “helping profession.” Just like nurses, teachers, counselors, first responders or nonprofit leaders, you come to the office every day with the overall mission of helping those in need.
Having a career where a higher purpose is baked into your job description at a deep level can be very inspiring and uplifting. But did you know there is a cost for caring? And that the price tag can be considerable?
What is compassion fatigue?
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofit leaders and professionals on the front lines of health and wellness. I have yet to meet anyone with any amount of experience who hasn’t felt stressed or overwhelmed by the constant demands and pressures of caring for other people. It’s an occupational hazard for sure. But it gets worse than that. Many of these same professionals I’ve worked with have fallen victim to compassion fatigue, a serious condition brought on by the relentlessly stressful nature of helping professions.
Before I go further, here’s what I mean by compassion fatigue. The common definition is this: secondary traumatic stress resulting from a caregiver’s focus on others without practicing self-care. Compassion fatigue can also be known as “vicarious traumatization” or “psychic numbing.”
Basically, when we spend all day, every day caring for others, it can lead to a place where we find ourselves burned out and checked out. Those outcomes aren’t good for us, or the people we signed up to serve.
Most of us have been taught how to deal with our own trauma and to fully understand the role direct trauma can play in our overall health and wellbeing. We are not as frequently trained on how to deal with other people’s trauma. But did you know secondary trauma can be every bit as harmful and debilitating?
Mother Theresa made it MANDATORY for her nuns to take an entire year off from their duties every 4-5 years to allow them to heal from the effects of their caregiving work. In our fast-paced society, we are lucky if we give our brains and bodies a 4-5 minute break on a regular basis.
How to battle compassion fatigue.
Below are 7 strategies to help you successfully battle compassion fatigue. This is more than just self-care. This is being intentional about preparing yourself to care for others and to extend your ability to effectively serve the greater good without it negatively impacting your personal health.
Consider the list of symptoms below. These are the signs that you may be wrestling with compassion fatigue.1 Start paying close attention to your emotions, to your compassion level, to your overall wellbeing. Reflect on why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. Try to identify specifically what’s driving it and if compassion fatigue is at play. For me, I discovered the hard way that I was focusing on helping others at the expense of dealing with things in my own life that required healing.
As a result of not being self-aware quickly enough, compassion fatigue hit me hard. And when it was done with me, I opened my eyes to a sideways view of the sidewalk. Following the blackout, I endured a three-day stay in the hospital and a full battery of diagnostic tests. Ultimately, I was medically cleared. But I knew in that moment, that mentally, I had pushed my mind to a breaking point. I needed to take a hard look at how and why.
Honest, daily reflection is important. So review the list. If two or more feel true to you, it might be time to dig deeper, examine your emotions and make some changes.
- Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
- Blaming others for their suffering
- Isolating yourself
- Loss of pleasure in life
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Bottling up your emotions
- Increased nightmares
- Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
- Frequent complaining about your work or your life
- Excessive use of drugs or alcohol
- Poor self-care
- Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
People always say, “don’t forget the big picture,” or “don’t miss the forest for the trees.” While there’s some truth to these adages, there’s also some danger involved when it comes to compassion fatigue. The big picture can be overwhelming. When you find yourself on the verge of burnout, take a moment to refocus. Always go back to your purpose, and then adjust your perspective. Instead of thinking about your overall responsibilities and all the commitments you’ve made and the deadlines you must hit, try humanizing your efforts. Think about a specific person or family that will benefit from the work you are doing in that very moment. Our brains are wired to respond with more compassion to individual need versus the collective.
Here’s an example. Several years ago, a research team from Wharton conducted an experiment to determine which approach works better for charities – appeals to the head, or appeals to the heart. In the “heart” scenario, the team presented the story of Rokia, a seven-year-old girl in Mali who needed food and shelter. In the “head” scenario, the team presented global statistics representing the number of children across Africa who needed relief from poverty and famine. The results of the research showed that donors were more generous and compassionate to the individual plight of Rokia than they were when considering the overall statistical needs.
So, think small. Take things one problem, one person at a time. And when you’re feeling balanced and strong, zoom out to that big picture for a moment to make sure you’re on the right track.
It’s easy to dismiss the battles you’ve won when you feel like you’re losing the war. But if you are in the business of helping or saving others, even the smallest victory can have long-standing positive repercussions. Routinely take time to remember the people, places and things you’ve positively impacted. Research by psychologist Daniel Kahneman shows that losses have twice the impact on us as gains. For example, the pain of losing a $100 bill is twice as intense as the joy of finding a $100 bill on the street. Guard against this natural tendency, or your failures will overshadow your accomplishments.
Also, understand that no matter how great you are at your job, the problem you are trying to solve is bigger. You can’t do it alone. And that’s fine, because no one can. Be kind to yourself when you fall short. Don’t allow small setbacks to evolve into full-blown failure. And by all means, ask for help when you need it. In a phrase, refuse to lose.
Mother Theresa once said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” At the end of each work day, you must let go. Declare success and then go home. Creating healthy boundaries is a hard but necessary exercise. Don’t carry the burden around with you. Don’t let your mind cycle through the things you didn’t get done today, or the people who still need help. Give yourself space to shut down and reboot. Let me share a secret with you. There will always be an endless supply of demand. This is an important concept to internalize. No matter how much time you invest, you never get to the end of the “to do” or the “to help” list.
As part of your effort to release, you also need to relax. What do you enjoy doing with your free time? What hobbies have you been neglecting? What skills do you want to build? What simple activity would bring a little joy and contentment to your day? What helps you wind down and let go? Make sure you set time aside for these activities.
If you don’t start from a base of strength, you will struggle. If you don’t find ways to stay balanced and to regulate your emotions, compassion fatigue will consistently overtake you.
Over time, I’ve developed a personal prescription that keeps me balanced. I know the specific dosage, timing, order, frequency, and duration of the things I need to do to feel my best. My prescription is a combination of:
- Morning quiet time – typically 15-20 minutes committed to scripture, meditation and journaling
- Bike ride – 3-5 times per week, usually mid-day
- Power nap – a 20 minute recharge 3-5 days per week, mid-afternoon
Executing this specific set of activities takes me less than one hour per day over the course of a 10 hour working window. If I follow my prescription, I am mostly balanced. If I don’t take my medicine, I feel it immediately. I’m uncentered, and it’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed and stressed.
Experiment until you find the perfect prescription for you. What creates a sense of peace and strength for you? Whatever that is, commit to it consistently. If you don’t know, then keep searching until you find it.
We all have clutter in our lives. We accumulate things. I have a friend whose email inboxes recently eclipsed 162,000 messages. Okay, so fine, those are my inboxes. To avoid compassion fatigue, we need to be better at removing unnecessary distractions.
Take a closer look at your calendar. Are there standing meetings that no longer serve a purpose? Are there any activities associated with your current job that no longer make sense and need to be revisited?
How about decisions? Are there decisions you can defer or delegate? Decisions that someone else can make for you? Decisions that shouldn’t be occupying space in your mind?
What about commitments outside of work? Are there activities or relationships in your life that no longer fit? Can you free some of your personal time and invest it in things that fill you up instead of filling up your social calendar?
While you’re at it, go ahead and cut back on your consumption of daily news. We all like to keep updated on the world around us, but news reports are negative by nature. Especially when you’re feeling fatigued, an overdose of news can push you right over the edge. Try to fill the space you create with positive or inspirational writing and video.
And please, do something about that inbox already!
As a society, we are really bad at this. The false comforts of social media have continued to isolate us from the physical world around us. We spend more time gazing at screens than we do looking into the eyes of other people. We are so addicted to our phones that Apple and Google are both working on functionality that enables our technology to unplug from us.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that baby boomers are less socially engaged than people the same age 20 years ago. Although it’s not as much about the quantity of connections as it is the quality, the research demonstrates that we aren’t on a positive trend. Dr. Mark Hyman says that social connections can literally change our gene expression. That’s how deeply and profoundly the right type of connection can impact us.
Connections where we are caring for others is not what we’re talking about here. You need to increase interactions with people who can fill you back up and energize you. Maybe even people who can take care of you a little. A simple tactic is to find three people a day that you can connect with, even in small ways. A phone call, a cup of coffee, a lunch date, a walk in the park. People that can offer an empathetic ear. People that can hold you accountable and help you regain perspective. People you feel comfortable being vulnerable with and that you trust.
Committing to a profession where the job is all about helping others is a noble pursuit. But you must respect how nasty it can turn if you aren’t preparing yourself to avoid and withstand compassion fatigue. Remember, it’s ok to be weak. It’s ok to need a break. It’s ok to ask for help.
Be kind to yourself today. Celebrate the small wins. Put it all in perspective. Set healthy boundaries. And most importantly, recall why you signed up for this job in the first place. You wanted to help. You wanted to make a difference. You wanted to change the world. Let’s make sure you do all that and more!
I hope the strategies above help you maximize your effectiveness while minimizing the effects of vicarious trauma.
About CHC Wellbeing // CHC Wellbeing goes beyond wellness to true potential, helping individuals excel in every facet of their lives: physically, emotionally, socially and financially. We meet our clients where they are on their journey to improved wellbeing. We are committed to the highest levels of service and offer the industry’s most flexible set of capabilities. We hold ourselves accountable, and we guarantee success. Combining high-touch and high-tech, we engage participants in healthy behaviors all year long. When your workforce isn’t well, and wellness isn’t working, CHC is the change you need. Learn more at www.chcw.com