Whether you are a professional who works in the field caring for patients, or you are a caregiver, helping a loved one who may be elderly or ill, you may be susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout.
Compassion fatigue is a specific form of burnout due to a professional’s deep investment in helping others, particularly caretaking or providing emotional support to others. It’s a deep physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. It can feel like you have nothing more to give to your patients.
Compassion fatigue happens when someone becomes depleted from repeated exposure to the trauma or adverse circumstances of others. Healthcare workers are at high risk of developing compassion fatigue, especially those on the frontline.
According to a report by British Medical Journal, it’s ironic that the most empathetic people are most vulnerable to compassion fatigue because they often tend to put their own needs last. This can slowly wear you down.
In addition, it’s important to accept that you need to fill your own emotional cup so that you can serve others the way you hope to. For example, if you are a healthcare worker, you may be better at your job and enjoy it more if you look after yourself first.
Here is how to prevent and manage compassion fatigue and burnout before it gets unmanageable and negatively affects your health.
The first step is to recognise the signs and these symptoms can look like:
If you are experiencing many of these symptoms, it might be time to accept they are signs that something needs to change.
There are also tools such as the professional quality of life scale that can be used to identify compassion fatigue.
Burnout shows many of the same symptoms as compassion fatigue, however it doesn’t necessarily come from the emotional drain that comes from helping or caring for others or being exposed to others’ adversities.
According to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, burnout relates more to the external environment, such as too much work, too little time too few resources and without enough rest or recreation. Compassion fatigue need not follow a particularly traumatising or distressing experience, though it may in some circumstances. Compassion fatigue is really about the imbalance of our incoming and outgoing emotional and psychological energy.
Setting boundaries between home and work is helpful. When you leave work, try to fully disengage for your home life.
Engaging in self care as a regular routine, rather than just when compassion fatigue happens can be key to lowering the risk. This can include working on a healthy and consistent sleep routine, engaging in regular exercise, maintain social connections, meditation, and just engaging in activities you enjoy, such as hobbies to give time, care and compassion to yourself.
This also means taking care during the work day with regular breaks and talking to others about any worries or concerns, or a health professional if talking to co-workers is not possible.
It means scheduling time off from work so you can fully switch off for a period of time, rejuvenate, recover and feel refreshed upon your return for increased productivity.
You could use your time off from work for self-reflection, to identify what's important and live in a way that reflects it.
For example, at work, you could think about what is important to you and develop a “principles of practice.” Identify your values and define your priorities. For example, if one of your priorities is to take better care of yourself, one of your principles may be to work for an organisation that looks after employee health.” Use these principles to guide your decisions and live and work by them.
Writing down three to five things that you were happy about or grateful for during the day, can help regain some perspective.
Take care of your mind and body by feeding it with healthy food, exercising regularly, engaging in mindfulness activities such as meditation and adequate sleep. If one of these falls by the wayside, it can have a negative effect on your physical or emotional wellbeing and cause a domino effect from there.
Try not to engage in negative thought patterns such as blaming others or complaining as this energy can be better directed on developing a plan of self care for yourself.