Compassion Fatigue is flourishing in our country. It is being seen in those who work in health care settings, in Hospices around the world and in professions that require individuals to bear witness to the suffering of others. It is being seen in the faces of your neighbors, perhaps you are feeling the signs and symptoms yourself, as you care for a sick or disabled loved one. Those at risk for Compassion Fatigue are those who care deeply for what others are going through; the pain or circumstances that others find themselves coping with. It is also known as "secondary traumatic stress" and stress is now killing people all over the world, with heart disease, with cancer, with the effects being witnessed on a daily basis in illness of the body, mind and spirit.
Awareness is the first key to combating the effects of Compassion Fatigue on professionals who bear witness to stories of those they work with day in and day out. Caring takes a toll on professionals doing hard work; on the organizations that they work within as they are exposed to secondary stress and the traumas each day. In these days of doing more with less, professionals are forgetting to take best care of themselves; they are rushing from one appointment, one client to the next. They are losing their self-awareness, not being encouraged to take best care of self by employers and colleagues. We see it in policies, in change of organizational structures, in best practice, in surveys of complaints rather than compliments and in reactions rather than actions on the behalf of HR departments and CEO offices and meeting planners.
We also see that words are powerful. Professional caregivers are sensitive to words that may label them as less than "great", less than "at their best". The days of "burn out" being a phrase that was used in quiet or whispered hallways or meeting rooms seems to now be replaced by "Compassion Fatigue". There was a time when nurses, social workers, chaplains would not feel safe to ask for permission to attend a workshop/seminar focusing on "Burnout", for fear their supervisors would think they were "burnt out". Professionals found ways to share their dismay, overwhelmed feelings of what they witnessed or heard with only a select few; usually behind a dumpster of the ER department; for fear of being thought less of or labelled as burned out.
Now we have Compassion Fatigue and many who speak well to the subject, who allow professionals an opportunity to be with others and to explore their very needs to re-establish their need to self-care and renew their balance for the important work being done. I have spoken to thousands across the globe who are beginning to tell me that Compassion Fatigue is beginning to take on the same "shame qualities" that once were attached to "burnout" in the professional arena, making it difficult to ask for permission to attend seminars and workshops that would refuel buoyancy, when being looked at as though something is wrong with those providing care. As if they are perhaps less or that they will no longer be as efficient in their roles, leading to turnover rates, dissatisfaction, or dismissal. We must educate those who are in the role of overseeing staff and professionals to enlighten them of the precious ones who are charged with the care of so many, dependent upon them to provide best practice in the professions.
"That which is to provide light must endure burning". ~ Victor Frankl ~ eloquently stated, and reminds us of the work being done in the helping professions. That which endures burning must be continually refueled through conferences, workshops, seminars to attend to the very real needs that professionals have in order to continue to do this work, make no mistake the work is hard and heart rendering. In order to be mindful with purpose in the work that professional caregivers are doing, one must have a clear vision as they bear witness to stories, seek interventions that are based in sound and best practice for those they are providing care for. This is done repeatedly, without fail, regardless of the trauma that is being witnessed; not everyone can do this work. Yet those who are called upon to do it are not typically being given the time to refuel, being given salaries that are in line with the very important work being done with others who are involving such raw and human conditions in our world.
The signs and symptoms of Compassion Fatigue are real, measurable, and avoidable, preventable. I have heard many state they have to pay for their own attendance at seminars, many who report they attend only for their CEU's and others who will report that they found a day of discovery and re-discovery on a topic such as Compassion Fatigue allowed them to "pick needed scabs" in order to heal from within. They have left feeling validated, appreciated, and once again reminded to put their own oxygen mask on before rendering aide to another. Mostly those who explore the cost/benefit of addressing Compassion Fatigue acknowledge that it is flourishing, but perhaps we need to give it a new name, to address the stress, enhance self- care, to make it more palpable for those who have the tendency to "label" and would like to attend!
Sherry E. Showalter, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., a National Heart of Hospice recipient for psycho-social-spiritual caregiving, has been a long time advocate for patients and families coping with loss, dying and bereavement. She proudly served with other first responders at the Pentagon during 9/11 and continues to work with those coping with sudden and traumatic losses. She is the author of Healing Heartaches, Stories of Loss and Life, Keynote speaker, and psychotherapist living in Florida Life and its many breaths are truly about "keeping it real" and being authentic with each footprint, and each breath we take, in painful and brilliant moments, we are all connected. http://www.sherryeshowalter.com