The last few years have been extremely hard for healthcare workers. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare personnel often struggle with long hours and stress, and the pandemic has only made things worse. The trauma of directly confronting the consequences of COVID-19 has caused many people to develop a stress and trauma-related phenomenon known as compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a common problem among people who work in high-intensity, stressful jobs involving other people. This advanced form of burnout often leads to people leaving these critical fields for their own health and well-being. So, what can be done to help prevent or reverse compassion fatigue?
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue occurs in people who have careers focusing on helping others in difficult situations. Healthcare workers, counselors, social workers, and other professionals are at the highest risk of developing compassion fatigue.
Essentially, compassion fatigue occurs when people work long hours while working with people who are sick and dying, struggling with severe mental health issues, or are victims of violence and trauma. Confronting these tragedies on a daily basis takes its toll, leading to extreme exhaustion, burnout, and secondhand trauma.
Everyone experiences work-related stress at some point during their careers. Many people also develop burnout from working under stressful conditions for too long without rest. However, compassion fatigue takes these problems to an even higher level, due to the nature of the jobs that cause it.
Compassion fatigue should be taken very seriously. Burnout on its own is bad enough, but the secondary trauma caused by compassion fatigue is even more serious. In addition to causing a range of physical and mental symptoms in the short term, compassion fatigue can even lead to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
If you work in healthcare, it’s important to know how to spot the symptoms of compassion fatigue in yourself and others. Some of these symptoms affect one’s ability to work and care for patients, while others affect personal health and well-being. Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue to watch out for include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Trouble sleeping
- Reduced decision-making ability
- Loss of enjoyment and job satisfaction
- Reduced ability to care for patients
- Inability to stop thinking about patients
- Overwhelm; feeling a lack of control
- Reduced empathy
- Substance abuse
People with compassion fatigue can’t relax even when they’re off the clock. They often dwell on patients’ stories and situations, which makes secondary trauma worse.
Ways to Address Compassion Fatigue
Healthcare workers give so much to their patients, but it’s important to remember that you can only neglect your own needs for so long before you’re unable to care for others. To prevent and address compassion fatigue, self-care steps need to be a priority, including the following:
Physical Activity & Diet
Although healthcare workers are on their feet for long hours, this isn’t the kind of physical activity that can help stabilize mood and promote good health. Making time for regular exercise during free time is important for overall well-being.
Eating well is also important. Many healthcare workers end up snacking on junk food, which can lead to a host of health problems. Packing healthier snacks and eating nutritious meals are necessary for mental and physical health.
Relaxation & Rest
Sleep is incredibly important for everyone, especially those at risk for compassion fatigue. Making time to relax and rest is key to preventing stress from spiraling out of control. Rest improves focus, reduces stress, and makes people better able to cope with their responsibilities at work.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
People who confront awful things daily need ways to cope. Unfortunately, many of these coping mechanisms are unhealthy. Substance abuse is common among those experiencing compassion fatigue.
Finding healthier coping mechanisms is important. Breathing exercises, muscle relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and journaling are all good ways to cope with the stress of secondhand trauma. Some people also find that spiritual practices help them feel prepared to go back to work ready to help others.
Support From Friends, Colleagues & Professionals
Social support is key, as compassion fatigue can be very isolating. It’s important for healthcare professionals to lean on each other and to keep up their social ties. Being able to laugh with colleagues and relax with friends can make a huge difference and help prevent or improve compassion fatigue.
For those who need additional support, working with a mental health professional can be a good choice. They can help people who are struggling to develop strategies for dealing with compassion fatigue.
Finding Your Passion to Make a Difference
Although compassion fatigue is a hazard of working in healthcare, many people wouldn’t dream of any other career. Without compassionate people who want nothing more than to make the world a better place by helping others, we would be in deep trouble.
If healthcare is your calling and your passion, then you can make a difference! Just be sure to take care of yourself, too.