Taking good care of yourself is very important for those who spend their time caring for others. As well as being satisfying, healthcare work can be physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding, whether you are a nurse, doctor, carer, social worker or therapist. Being present with patients in physical or emotional distress can be challenging as staff try to stay in touch with what they are feeling.
Compassion Fatigue (CF) symptoms are normal displays of stress resulting from the care giving work we choose to do, according to Eric Gentry, who is a leader in the field in the united states. It is interesting that many people working in healthcare haven’t heard the term. cF can result from caring for patients in physical and/ or emotional pain or stress. Internationally, there has been an increase in research in and treatment for CF since the 1990s. Symptoms vary from person to person but can include sleeplessness, apathy, irritability, anxiety, loss of focus, increases in pessimism, etc. The good news is that compassion fatigue is a set of symptoms, not a disorder and responds well to skill building and committed self care. It is up to the individual to watch out for signs of fatigue in themselves and to act if they feel they need assistance.
Many professionals don’t feel comfortable talking about this topic, so it is important to normalise conversations about cF rather than feeling embarrassed or viewing it as ‘just an occupational hazard’. Carers’ stress should be acknowledged at all levels as treatable, and a sign of a caring person working in a challenging area. Lombardo and Eyre (2011) provide evidence of the importance of staff increasing self-awareness, communication skills, and recognising the types of situations, events and people that tend to trigger us.
From my own experience, talking openly with staff about stress-inducing situations has been very productive. Acknowledging that we all feel stress sometimes increases communication and trust amongst team members. Additionally, regular brief group relaxation sessions have resulted in stronger team cohesion.
Developing a healthy self care plan can be really enjoyable and rewarding. To begin with, make a list of issues in various areas of your life that may be contributing to your stress. Are there adjustments you can make? Can you reprioritise or delegate to others to create more space for yourself?
Review your available resources, including people with whom you can talk: a friend, colleague or counsellor. Training in compassion fatigue is also very helpful for staff who need skills to work in healthier and more self-sustaining ways.
Many people use self-soothing techniques to mitigate against the build-up of stress or fatigue during their working day. Deep breathing techniques, prayer, meditation or basic acupressure techniques such as ‘tapping’ are healthy habits worth forming, and which can be incorporated into the working day.
Good boundary management is a key skill which can be developed if you have a tendency to take work home with you. Respect your need for your own time. Nourishing yourself by spending time on your own interests is validating and affirming whether it’s baking, golfing, fishing, painting or whatever you enjoy.
Committing to healthier self care practices can make a big difference to your life and work. Your own self care plan can be a tool, buffer and comfort on challenging days. This is a real prescription for wellness.