Compassion Fatigue- An exhaustion of the Frontline Worker
As a licensed professional counselor (LPC), I hear the struggles and tragedies of others on a weekly bases. I have done this work for 20+ years and the increase in mental health services has seen a sharp increase in the year 2020 and is carrying into 2021. Clinicians are having to create waitlist and increase their caseloads at the same time they are juggling changes in their own personal lives due to the pandemic. I write this article for my fellow colleagues in the mental health profession as the need for services continues to increase and compassion fatigue becomes a possible reality. I am reminded of this quote:
“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.” Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen
It is no surprise that under the current stressors created during the pandemic the CDC (Center for Disease Control) reports elevated levels of symptoms of anxiety & depressive disorders, substance use and suicidal ideation. Identified populations that are at increased risk include caregivers and essential workers.
As our world experiences an increase in mental health needs, hence the demands on helping professionals increases. Frontline workers in the mental health crisis are not just limited to licensed counselors, this group includes teachers, medical personnel, law enforcement, paramedics, social workers and other 1st responders.
Individuals that gravitate towards “helping professions” often posses an extra dose of empathy for those that are hurting and struggling. In addition, many of these professions undergo a great deal of clinical training in the area of empathetic engagement. Even with these added skills and training the weight and increased demand of emotional support needed over this past year can take a toll on even the most highly trained professionals.
This toll can be seen as compassion fatigue. After years of research in early 1990’s this term was coined by Charles Figley, Ph.D. His term, compassion fatigue (CF) is different then burnout. Compassion fatigue is defined as profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel or regenerate. In contrast to burnout, compassion fatigue can come on more suddenly verses over a long period of time. Another important distinction is that CF occurs with strong levels of job satisfaction verses low job satisfaction like burnout. The key difference for those experiencing CF is being overwhelmed with job demands.
Common symptoms of Compassion Fatigue are:
- Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion
- Depersonalization seen in reduced empathy and ability to connect with loved ones
- Numbness of emotions/indifference
- Feelings of self contempt seen as increased feelings of hopelessness or discontent about the world
In this past 12 months I can honestly share that I have had moments when compassion fatigue has been present in my life. It takes a conscious effort on my part to not allow the fatigue to get the best of me. Below are suggested tips to help navigate through a challenging time in our world.
Tips to Overcome Compassion Fatigue
- Create a work-life balance
- Invest in strong social supports professionally and personally. Consider supervision or a professional support group.
- Self-care with a focus on mental and emotional decompression. Find the activity that works for you….physical exercise, time outdoors, complete a puzzle, or get lost in a book
- Practice “micro self care” use a timer or Apple Watch and deep breathe for 1 minute focusing on inhale and exhaling. Science proves this practice provides health benefits
We as trained helping professionals are at a high calling in our current climate, combined with our own need to personally managing the challenges from the pandemic within our own homes and our day to day routines. The current mental health demands will not come to an end simply with widespread vaccinations, in fact as restrictions ease up and folks are able to move forward in their lives the impact of the emotional drain during this time may surface more readily. Frontline workers, caregivers, teachers and mental health professionals will benefit from a practice of self care and awareness of compassion fatigue in their lives. To my fellow “helping professionals” and all those that are hurting and struggling emotionally I leave you with this final thought:
“Taking care of myself doesn’t mean ‘me first’ it means me too.” L.R. Knost