If you are a health care professional, healer, social worker, therapist, counsellor, change agent, or any other kind of helper, chances are you have heard of or experienced some form of compassion fatigue during the course of your career.
Compassion fatigue is considered an occupational hazard, or a cost of caring, within high-care occupations where empathy, caring for others, and compassion are at the occupational core. This hazard is often discussed in relation to other occupational hazards such as job stress, professional burnout, and vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress, to name a few.
There are many rewards and joys to being a helping professional. However, there can also be costs of caring. These costs can be emotional, psychological, physical, or spiritual in nature.
I first became exposed to the topic of compassion fatigue when I was completing my Master of Social Work degree through the University of Northern British Columbia. I learned as much as I could about burnout prevention for social workers and within caregiving organizations. This was of interest to me, in part, due to losing three social work colleagues to suicide within the first ten years of my career. While I did my research in the areas of burnout and well-being for helpers, I came across the important work of Charles Figley, Ph.D., who coined the term “compassion fatigue.”
Awareness is prevention when it comes to mitigating the risk of compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue refers to absorbing information and often the suffering of others through empathy. It happens when a helping professional experiences exhaustion due to caring for someone, and can lead to profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate themselves (Figley, C., 1995, 2002, & Mathieu, F., 2012).
Awareness is prevention when it comes to mitigating the risk of compassion fatigue. Consistent, restorative self-care is at the heart of preventing this cost of caring. It is possible to be a helping professional for many years and never suffer compassion fatigue, but it requires a commitment to ongoing healing. This commitment ensures that helpers receive the care they need to fill their own emotional cups, while also nourishing their fulfillment and satisfaction in their occupation.
“Improved self-care is the cornerstone to mitigating the impact of compassion fatigue. This may seem obvious, but many helpers tend to put their needs last and feel guilty for taking extra time out of their busy schedules to exercise, meditate, or have a massage.”
– Francoise Mathieu, “The Compassion Fatigue Workbook”
Here are five pathways for healing or preventing compassion fatigue:
1. Consider how you replenish your mind, body, heart, and spirit
How do you nourish your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health on a daily basis? As helpers, we are the tools of our trade – our energy, vitality, attitude, optimism, and more all contribute to our success and capacity within our work. We have to be healthy to do our best work, in such a way that is sustainable and enriching over time. We must practice what we preach and ensure that our own restorative self-care is a top priority in order to prevent compassion fatigue.
How do you fill your own emotional cup?
2. Access and nurture support
Emotional support, peer support, and supervision are all helpful when it comes to mitigating the risk of compassion fatigue. In fact, social support is one of the key predictors of whether or not a professional will suffer or stay well (Fisher, P. & Abrahamson, K., 2002). We need one another to stay strong, resilient, and healthy. We are not meant to do this alone or in isolation – how we care for one another matters too!
Who are your sources of meaningful emotional support?
3. Stay connected to meaning
Research shows that the more we stay connected to the hope, joys, rewards, sense of purpose, and meaning within our work as helpers, the more we diminish the risk for burnout and compassion fatigue.
What brings you joy as a helper?
4. Engage in reflective practice
Mindfulness, reflective practice, and journaling (Monk, 2009) are all proven ways to prevent compassion fatigue. The more self-aware, grounded, centred, and present in the moment we are, the more attuned to our own needs we become. Listening within is at the heart of well-being and renewal for helpers.
How do you engage in reflective practice?
5. Be kind to yourself
Treat yourself with the same care, compassion, and concern that you show to others, including those you serve. We can be hard on ourselves as helpers, yet self-compassion is the path to having true compassion for others.
In what ways are you kind and compassionate with yourself?
We do not have to reduce compassion or turn away from caring in order to prevent compassion fatigue. Rather, in the presence of deep self-compassion – in the form of self-care and personal renewal – all other caring can flow.
Compassion – defined as a deep caring for another and wanting to connect and help another – is a precious aspect of our human nature and a core value and ethical imperative within any helping profession. Ultimately, to stay well when it comes to self-care and caring for others, we can ask ourselves, “What is the most compassionate thing to do here?”
I have grown to believe, and I recognize that it is a paradox of sorts, that compassion is in fact the balm that heals and prevents compassion fatigue. Compassion, in other words, is what heals us all.
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