When Helping Hurts – Dealing with Compassion Fatigue
Compassion Fatigue, secondary traumatic stress (STS), vicarious trauma…these are all terms used to describe the toll that can accompany caring for others who have experienced or are experiencing trauma. It’s no surprise then, than people like the Children In Families regularly experience this kind of vicarious trauma.
Others susceptible to compassion fatigue include therapists, nurses, psychologists, first responders, health unit coordinators and, basically, anyone who helps out others. According to a study in the Journal of Pediatric Health, people who are overly conscientious, perfectionist, and self-giving are predisposed to developing compassion fatigue.
Not surprisingly, people with these personal attributes tend to be drawn to caring professions, which can set them up for trouble if they and their employers are not sensitive to the risks and taking steps to prevent it.
The symptoms of compassion fatigue are quite comparable to those of high chronic stress leading to burnout: anxiety, depression, fatigue, difficulty with concentration, apathy, etc. These can lead to chronic physical ailments, problems in interpersonal relationships, compulsive behaviors, and substance abuse, among other problems.
While any professional environment can contribute to burnout in an employee struggling to cope with chronic tedium and/or high demands over a long period of time without adequate reprieve and self care, those involved in caring professions need to be especially aware of their vulnerability. Charles R. Figley, co-author of Compassion Fatigue: Coping With Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized, states that, “there is a cost to caring. Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care…..Ironically, the most effective therapists are most vulnerable to this mirroring or contagion effect. Those who have enormous capacity for feeling and expressing empathy tend to be more at risk of compassion stress”.
Additionally, while burnout is, by definition, the result of a cumulative process, compassion fatigue can occur due to one exposure and, even when resulting from cumulative trauma, tends to have a more rapid onset.
The good news is that compassion fatigue can be prevented and also can have a faster recovery as compared to burnout if it is recognized and managed early. Unfortunately, many people are not aware of the risks, either for themselves or for their organizations. Just as unmanaged compassion fatigue can disrupt the well-being of an individual experiencing it, it can wreak havoc in an organization whose staff is comprised of a number of susceptible individuals. When compassion fatigue becomes systemic, the organizational symptoms can include high absenteeism, impaired staff relationships, poor performance, lack of flexibility, negativity, and pervasive apathy and hopelessness. Fortunately, organizations are becoming aware of this and are starting to recognize the need to take steps to care for their staff who are caring for others.
Maybe you remember a recent blog post of ours featuring some great pictures from our staff retreat. It was pointed out that if we want to be able to provide good quality care for the children entrusted to us, we have to take care of our staff. This means equipping them with the knowledge and tools they need to be successful, but as the research shows, it also means we need to take care of their hearts. We need to make space for rest and healing. We need to create an environment that promotes good self care. We are fortunate to have very caring staff, but, as has been pointed out, this just makes them all the more vulnerable. While we face the same financial pressures that all non-profits face, we can’t afford to neglect one of the very keys to our success in positively impacting the lives of orphaned and vulnerable children, our hard-working, compassionate staff.
Chances are, if you care about this ministry, you are likely the kind of person who is also susceptible to compassion fatigue. If you would like more information and some tips on how you can care for yourself, a good place to find this is www.compassionfatigue.org.
 Meadors, et al. (2008). Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Traumatization: Provider Self Care on the Intensive Care Units for Children. Journal of Pediatric Health,(22)1.
 Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue as secondary stress disorder: An overview. Compassion fatigue: coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized (1-20). New York: Brunner/Mazel.