Published July 2013 Irish Independent
Feeling shattered, isolated, apathetic, sleepless, irritable, or anxious are all symptoms of what is known as ‘compassion fatigue’ which can affect healthcare staff. Back in 1992 the term ‘Compassion Fatigue’ by was coined Joinson and adapted by Charles Figley (1995), a leading researcher in the field. It has been described as feeling that you’re still digging into the bottom of your bucket after supplies have run dry.
In Ireland today, increasing demands on the healthcare system, cuts in wages, higher levels of client stress all contribute to an increase in the level of ‘compassion fatigue’ being experienced by healthcare workers. Being present with clients, residents, or patients can be emotionally demanding as we struggle to stay in touch with what they are feeling. Even people with good strategies for self-care and preferred work / life balance can and do experience fatigue. This can happen when some elements of their work changes i.e., they take on some traumatised clients, workload becomes heavier, resources become scarcer etc.
Staff in caring roles such as doctors, nurses, social workers, psychotherapists, care staff, etc. can find themselves near the point of exhaustion which can have long reaching effects into their personal, as well as professional lives. Indeed, this can even change the way they look at life, and they can start to make uncharacteristic mistakes, become pessimistic, etc. which can have a direct effect on their work with clients. The important thing to remember is that ‘compassion fatigue’ is a set of symptoms and not a disorder and help for ‘compassion fatigue’ is at hand.
Although the term ‘compassion fatigue’ may be new to many people, even those working in the healthcare field, it is a very well researched area. According to Karen Brennan who runs Self Care for Carers, there is a range of excellent interventions which help stressed-out and fatigued staff find their way back to healthy caregiving. She is a compassion fatigue educator and lived in Asia for a number of years, committing some of her there time in Buddhist monastic practice.
“Many people working in front line services are suffering from ‘compassion fatigue’ or some of its symptoms and aren’t even aware of it, “she says”. Recognising there may be an issue developing for you is the first place to start. It can be a revelation when people realise that there is a name for this, and more importantly that help is out there”.
According to Brennan there are some simple yet powerful steps which can make an impact on the quality of your life. Here are 6 helpful starters:
1. Take Stock of Stresses
The first thing to do is to take stock of the various areas of your life that may be contributing to stress. Where are areas that you can make changes, reprioritise and delegate to others? Where possible start here.
2. Self-Care Planning
Start to think about what your ideal self-care plan. What are the ways that you personally receive? Perhaps a round of golf, painting, time with friends, meditation or prayer? Noticing what energises you and what drains you is key. Then commit to getting the balance right and maintaining it – ‘refill your bucket’.
3. Start to Develop greater Self-Compassion
As well as giving it out, we need to get it too! Giving kindness to yourself is very important. Self compassion isn’t a concept we are very familiar with in the West. According to Kristen Neff (2005), it is replacing vying with the concept of self esteem with many psychologists, particularly in the US. According to Neff, empirical evidence has shown that being kinder to yourself, seeing yourself just like others and giving yourself a break, helps you feel better. Many people who become professional caregivers actually grew up in a ‘carer role’ in their family, and don’t feel that they also deserve care. Of course they do!
4. Regular Switch Offs
During your working day, taking short regular switch-off breaks can really help. Is there time during your day for example during lunch, that you can close the office door, or sit in your car listening to lunchtime classics on Lyric FM? Even just taking a moment to notice something in nature, becoming mindful of your environment can just be enough to distress you during your busy day.
5. Create a Ritual to Finish Your Working Day
Some people have a ritual for when they leave work. Whether it’s filing documents away and clearing the desk, or consciously saying goodbye to your colleagues as you leave work, or taking a few moments of deep breathing. These techniques can bring about a shift from work mode to home mode. Developing ways to ‘leave work’ can really help.
6. Developing Boundaries – The Magic Words of ‘No’ and ‘Yes’
According to Eric Gentry founder of Compassion Unlimited, many people who work in caring fields are ‘compassion fatigued’ by the time they start their first job. Although they like giving to others, over time this can develop into expectations by others. Learning to say ‘no’ to others and ‘yes’ to yourself can be extremely difficult for many people. According to Brennan, taking quiet ‘alone time’ perhaps during a walk, allows you to hear that inner voice that is calling out for your attention. Set limits on what you can do and learn to say ‘no’.
Education about ‘compassion fatigue’ is an important first step, and can be a revelation to health care staff who need help with their own self-care. Compassion Fatigue can have serious consequences for staff burn-out, absenteeism, sick leave, client service levels etc. On an individual level, effects can include feeling isolated, relationship trouble, career path problems, health issues, decreased quality of life etc. Learning how to help yourself by developing healthier caregiving skills can bring about profound shifts in the way you work and live. Self Care for Carers runs courses in this area. See www.selfcareforcarers.ie
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