Compassion Fatigue

compassion fatigue
For caregivers, whose work is often emotionally wrenching, a lessening of the compassion that brought them to that work can be a problem both for themselves and the people they are trying to help. It used to be called burnout, but now it's recognized as a serious syndrome.

“Most people don’t understand what it is until they’re at the point where they’re barely functioning,” says Lisa Dinhofer, a thanatologist and consultant who has lectured on CFS to professionals in health care, law enforcement, and mortuaries. “Even then, they just think they’re tired all the time, or grumpy.” In the worst cases, CFS can become secondary traumatic stress disorder, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some compassion fatigue symptoms to watch out for: Caregivers start to resent the people they’re working for and the people they’re trying to help. They feel their work is pointless. “You have the feeling that you can’t make a difference,” says Dinhofer. Depression is always part of CFS.

Self-care for Caregivers

If a caregiver catches CFS before it’s gone too far, self-care measures like getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising can go a long way. If the symptoms persist for six weeks, it’s time to address the problem in a more systematic way.

Often, acknowledging it is the first obstacle. “Most people think it‘s a sign of weakness and that if they put their minds to it, they can get over it,” Dinhofer says. People who work in the helping professions are accustomed to putting others’ needs before their own. They often didn’t have good boundaries to start with, but now is the time to establish them: Caregivers should make clear to their boss (and themselves) how much work they’re willing to take home, for instance. Sometimes supervisors who don’t deal with trauma themselves have unrealistic expectations of their workers.

Trauma Workers Need Support at Home

For caregivers who are frequently exposed to trauma and death, it’s critical to have life-affirming outlets that use the right side of the brain – creative activities that can range from gardening to learning a musical instrument. Regular physical activity is important; there’s definitely a mind-body connection with CFS.

It may be a good time to look closely at personal relationships. A caregiver whose work is exhausting especially needs a supportive home environment. If both work and home life are emotionally draining, that person should think about making changes in one or both. This can be one hard – an exhausted caregiver may think she doesn't have time to think about her personal life – but sometimes the focus CFS puts on a person's overall situation can be a helpful spur to change.

CFS Shouldn't Be Dismissed as Burnout

Workers in the helping professions who start to feel drained and irritable, perhaps even resenting those they're trying to help, shouldn't just assume it's job burnout. They should make sure they're taking as good care of themselves as they are of others. Taking time to put their own needs
first will help everyone – themselves, their clients, and their company.

“A lot of people think if they say they have compassion fatigue, they’re not as competent a professional as they thought,” says Dinhofer. On the contrary, “It’s a sign of professional maturity to understand that everyone has their limits.”

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