Howdy’s response team often encounter compassion fatigue when counselling people in the caring profession.
Compassion fatigue is a common theme when Howdy’s psychologists counsel employees in the caring profession.
These years, employees are really feeling the effect of fewer resources and increasing complexity of their work. With a faster pace, more administrative work, and a focus on limiting errors, not surprisingly, the work is taking its toll.
Caring professions are traditionally those jobs, where care and compassion for others is a significant part of the job—e.g. in hospitals, child care, elder care, psychotherapy and social work. Also in related fields, such as in the police, first responders and case workers, care and compassion are important.
High level of emotional demands
Emotional demands are when you, through your work, have daily contact with others, where there is high demand for empathy, for your ability to deal with or contain other people’s emotions while handling or concealing your own emotions and adjusting your communication and behaviour.
American professor of psychology Charles Figley first described compassion fatigue in 1995. It is a state where long term exposure to other people’s suffering leads to physical and emotional exhaustion.
Why do we run out of compassion?
Health care and social work workers are often naturally caring and conscientious people. Caring for others is really meaningful. But if you consider caring, empathy and compassion an unlimited resource, your big heart can be your Achilles’ heel.
In care work, there is a high degree of emotional demands, in work environment terminology (see fact box). When being empathetic and caring for others, you always put yourself in their shoes, to some extent. You are using your interpersonal skills in a way than in many other professions. To do this daily, it is necessary to also receive care and compassion from others. Both from yourself, from your loved ones, and from management and colleagues as well.
During a busy workday with increasing demands, running out of compassion and the ability to care is not uncommon. In many workplaces, there is a limited possibility for workers to refill their compassion container.
What does compassion fatigue feel like?
Many times, people do not realise that they are running out of compassion until they have almost nothing left. Maybe you feel like you have nothing to give when coming home from work. Maybe you become socially withdrawn because you feel that being with others is demanding rather than enjoyable.
Some people distance themselves from their daily work, maybe being more cynical than they like. But it’s only a way to protect yourself from interpersonal overload. Your warm heart is overheated, so you try to cool it down by creating distance.
Others become over-involved and work too hard or too much. Maybe you fit in an extra appointment, start to have trouble finishing appointments on time or find yourself working overtime most days.
Both of these patterns are warning signs, and seeing them in yourself or others should prompt action.
Management is responsible for the psychological work environment
Creating a psychologically healthy work environment is an important management task. This is especially important in caring professions, because of the high emotional demands. These demands are a known risk factor in the psychological work environment, increasing the risk of long-term sickness-absence. Prevention is important in all workplaces, where caring and compassion are part of the job, especially when care workers are in high demand in the job market.
There are several ways to take better care of your employees’ abilities for compassion.
Balance demands and resources
When planning and allocating resources, be sure not to overload your employees.
Pay special attention to new and young employees
For new and young employees, a well-planned introduction period is crucial before they are ready to take on the full responsibility of their different tasks.
Supervision is part of the job, not only a benefit
Ongoing supervision is required to ensure learning and early detection of compassion fatigue. This may be costly but lowered productivity, sick leaves, and high employee turnover are even more costly.
Create an inclusive culture
Work on creating a culture where you speak openly about compassion as a limited resource. Employees should be allowed to express when they feel they are running out of empathy, before it’s too late. Compassion fatigue should not be a taboo subject.
Focus on psychological safety in the workplace. Making mistakes should be ok, as they will always happen. But, when discussed openly, it is possible to learn from mistakes and prevent future ones.
Educate yourself on the psychological work environment and compassion fatigue prevention.
Be clear about your expectations
Speak to your employees about your expectations for their work and ask about their own expectations. Conscientious employees will often have very high expectations of themselves. Some might even be self-critical, when it is impossible to give as much as you think you should, even when the organisational settings are really to blame.
In the long run, it is better to give 90% consistently than exhaust yourself by trying to give 110%, both for the employee and the workplace. So be clear about what is “good enough”.
Recogntion is important
Remember to frequently recognise and praise your employees for their efforts, both for their daily work and when they go the extra mile. This is costless but valuable to your employees.
Take good care of yourself as a leader.
Leaders also experience compassion fatigue. Your position requires you to take care of your employees and the people they care for. Be attentive to your own reactions and needs. Prioritise self-care.
Seek social support and sparring from other leaders in your organisation. Maybe leadership coaching would be beneficial?
Tips for taking better care of your ability for compassion
Even though your workplace is responsible for ensuring a good psychological work environment where the risk of compassion fatigue is low, there are still steps you can take for prevention.
Talk to your manager
Let your manager know if you experience something that affects the psychological work environment for you or your colleagues. This helps your manager to take the necessary steps to solve the issue.
Be open with your manager if you have signs of compassion fatigue. The sooner, the better.
Know what is beyond your sphere of control
Remember not to take personal responsibility for suboptimal work conditions you have no control over. Focus on what lies inside your sphere of control and do the best you can sustainably.
If you do not already receive regular supervision, then request it.
Talk to your colleagues about how compassion is a limited resource. Ask each other about your capacity for compassion and support each other during the workday.
Be aware of your inner voice – is it supportive or critical?
If you feel inadequate at work, how do you discuss this with yourself – in a supportive or a self-critical manner? Would you speak to your favourite colleague the same way? If not, you are probably being too self-critical. Being self-critical is quite normal, actually, but not very helpful when trying to motivate yourself.
Remember that compassion fatigue does not arise from personal shortcomings. It is an occupational hazard when working in a job with high emotional demands. Do not put yourself down over having emotional reactions to your job. See as a sign of being an empathic human being, which is really a strength.
Self-care is a prerequisite for compassion for others
When caring for others, it is crucial that you also have strong self-care strategies. For both employees and managers alike. You probably already know this and agree – in theory. But how about in practice, in your everyday life? Is it your true priority, or do you choose to care for others before caring for yourself?
You are most responsible to your workplace, colleagues and loved ones when taking responsibility for your well-being and needs and practising self-care.
Self-care looks different for everyone. Take the suggestions below as inspiration. Congratulate yourself on the self-care strategies you already use. Maybe choose one new thing you can try out today.
Be your own best friend
Use your caring skills on yourself. Think about how you care for others – professionally as well as for your best friends, partner, children or pets. You deserve the same care. Treat yourself as kindly as you treat others. This is done by listening to your needs and being accepting towards yourself in difficult situations.
Respect your needs
Make a habit of asking yourself at some point every day: “What do I need right now?”. Listen carefully to the answer and take care of that need.
Also, remember and respect your very basic needs, even during busy workdays:
Eating, drinking, going to the toilet, getting fresh air, social connection and alone time.
Meditation can help you listen better to your needs
Meditation is, for many people, an effective tool for listening to the needs of the body and the mind. Even short meditations can be effective. Many apps and videos can teach you the basics of meditation.
Remember to take breaks
Many people forget to take breaks when they are busy. But breaks are actually what help you to be productive for the entire workday and should not be missed. A quick 2-minute break is better than nothing. Think about what feels most recharging for you: Spending time alone or with colleagues? Maybe going outside?
Create a good transition from work to leisure
A ritual for transition can help you leave your work at the workplace, so you can unwind properly. Find a ritual that would be beneficial to you. E.g., take a quiet moment, take some deep breaths and think of three things you did well at work today.
Remember that you are human, not just a worker
Care workers often put a lot of their identity into their work. To prevent work from overshadowing your entire life, which is not sustainable, remember to also use all of the other sides of your personality. Do things just for fun, things that feel really energising for you. For many people, this would be spending time in nature, sports, creative projects or spending time with people where there are no demands.
Howdy is helping employees and managers in caring professions to prevent compassion fatigue
At Howdy, we take honour in caring for those that care for others. By continuously asking about their well-being, we are reminding employees to attend to their needs and mental health. We hope that well-being and mental health are discussed more openly at workplaces and in the management corridors.
Article written by Chief Psychologist in Howdy, Mette Nørgaard Nielsen