If you are a helping or health professional, healer, social worker, therapist, counsellor, or change agent, chances are you have heard of or experienced some form of compassion fatigue during the course of your career.
Compassion fatigue is considered an occupational hazard, or a cost of caring, within high care occupations where empathy, caring for others and compassion are at the occupational core. This hazard is often discussed in relation to other occupational hazards such as job stress, professional burnout, and vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress, to name a few.
There are many rewards and joys to being a helping or health professional. However, there can also be costs of caring. These costs can be emotional, psychological, physical or spiritual in nature.
I first became exposed to the topic of compassion fatigue when I was completing my Master of Social Work degree through the University of Northern British Columbia. I devoted these studies to learning as much as I could about burnout prevention for social workers and within caregiving organizations. This was of interest to me, in part, due to losing three social work colleagues to suicide within the first ten years of my career. While I did my research in the area of burnout and well-being for helpers, I came across the important work of Charles Figley, PhD, who was the person who coined the term “compassion fatigue.”
Compassion fatigue refers to absorbing information and often the suffering itself through empathy. It represents an exhaustion of caring for a helping professional, and it leads to profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate themselves (Figley, C., 1995, 2002, & Mathieu, F., 2012).
Awareness is prevention when it comes to mitigating the risk for compassion fatigue. Consistent restorative self-care is at the heart of preventing this cost of caring. It is possible to be a helping professional for many years and never suffer compassion fatigue. It requires a commitment to the ongoing healing of helpers, ensuring that caregivers receive the continuing care they need to help fill their own emotional cups, while also nourishing our fulfillment and satisfaction as helpers.
Here are five pathways for healing or preventing compassion fatigue:
1. Consider how you replenish your mind, body, heart and spirit
How do you nourish your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health on a daily basis? As helpers, we are the tools of our trade – our energy, vitality, attitude, optimism and more all contribute to our success and capacity within our work. We have to be healthy to do our best work, and to do this work in ways that are sustainable and enriching over time. We must practice what we preach and ensure that our own restorative self-care is a top priority in order to prevent compassion fatigue.
How do you fill your own emotional cup?
2. Access and nurture support
Emotional support, peer support and supervision are all helpful when it comes to mitigating the risk of compassion fatigue. In fact, social support is one of the key predictors of whether or not a professional will suffer or stay well (Fisher, P. & Abrahamson, K., 2002). We need one another to stay strong, resilient and healthy as helpers. We are not meant to do this alone or in isolation. How we care for one another matters too!
Who are your sources of meaningful emotional support?
3. Stay connected to meaning
Research shows that the more we stay connected to the hope, joys, rewards and sense of purpose and meaning within our work as helping professionals, healers and change agents, the more we mitigate the risk for burnout and compassion fatigue.
What brings you joy as a helper?
What are your sources of “compassion satisfaction”?
4. Engage in reflective practice
Mindfulness, reflective practice and journaling (Monk, 2009) are all proven ways to mitigate the risk for compassion fatigue. The more self-aware, grounded, centered and present in the moment we are, the more attuned to our own needs we become. Listening within is at the heart of well-being and renewal for helpers.
How do you engage in reflective practice?
How do you increase your self-awareness?
5. Be kind to yourself
Treat yourself with the same care, compassion and concern that you treat others, including your clients and those you serve. We can be hard on ourselves as helpers. Yet self-compassion is the path to having true compassion for others.
In what ways are you kind and compassionate with yourself?
We do not have to reduce compassion or turn away from caring in order to prevent compassion fatigue. Rather, in the presence of deep self-compassion, in the form of self-care and personal renewal, all other caring can flow.
Compassion, defined as a deep caring for another and wanting to connect and help another, is a precious aspect of our human nature and a core value and ethical imperative within any helping profession. Ultimately, to stay well, when it comes to self-care and caring for others, we can ask ourselves: “What is the most compassionate thing to do here?”
I have grown to believe, and I recognize that it is a paradox of sorts, that compassion is in fact the balm that heals and prevents compassion fatigue. Compassion, in other words, is what heals us all.
If you are interested in more information on this topic, check out our workshop Wellness Strategies for Helping Professionals.
Figley, C. (Ed.). (2002). Treating compassion fatigue. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Fisher, P. & Abrahamson, K. (2002). When Working Hurts: Stress, Burnout and Trauma in Human, Emergency and Health Services. Victoria, BC: Spectrum Press.
Mathieu, F. (2012). The compassion fatigue workbook: Creative tools for transforming compassion fatigue and vicarious traumatization. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.
Monk, L. (2009). Life source writing: A reflective journaling practice for self-discovery, self-care, wellness and creativity. Salt Spring Island, BC: Creative Wellness.