What is Compassion Fatigue and Burnout?
Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is a normal but troublesome repercussion of working with people who have suffered from or are currently facing trauma and can lead to Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. The capacity to experience empathy, which draws people to the work of helping others, is the very attribute that makes them vulnerable to this disorder. STS mimics the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The symptoms of Compassion Fatigue are vast and can be quite confusing. Often people experience symptoms but don’t understand why they are feeling this way. The symptoms seem unrelated to anything going on in their lives and can be experienced as depression and anxiety. Specific symptoms include poor concentration, rigid thinking, perfectionism, guilt, sadness, numbness, anger, helplessness and hopelessness. People might withdraw from social interactions and activities they once enjoyed, experience strained personal relationships, changes in eating and sleeping, a compromised immune system and other physical symptoms associated with the nervous system, heart, blood and digestion.
The symptoms that are more closely associated with the work include a preoccupation with thoughts of other people’s traumas, lack of compassion for clients, increased irritability toward clients, poor performance, burnout, questioning your meaning and purpose in life and even a loss of faith.
Many types of professionals, such as emergency first responders, healthcare and behavioral health providers, employees in child protective services, educators and daycare providers can become susceptible to Compassion Fatigue. This stress occurs when the helping professional witnesses other people experiencing pain. In the hospitals this occurs when lives are altered or even lost due to illness or injury. In mental health services, personnel often hear tragic stories of abuse and neglect and witness the aftermath of the destruction firsthand. Many social workers experience the trauma of forcibly removing panicked children from their unfit parents. Teachers and day care providers often watch children go hungry and neglected, sometimes abused, without being able to do anything about it.
These events and symptoms can be alarming and personally overwhelming to anyone experiencing them. However, Compassion Fatigue does NOT need to be your destiny. Once recognized, you can not only recover from the symptoms, but build resilience for the future and continue to thrive in your work. Treatment will focus on developing strategies from trauma informed care that include not only the mind and emotions, but the body as well.
Learning to Identify early symptoms such as under or overidentify with clients and recognizing counter transference will safeguard you against the greatest vulnerabilities for this type of stress. Developing new daily habits will increase assertiveness through boundaries that protect your psychological wellbeing, mindfulness activities that promote a feeling of safety and connectedness, emotional and cognitive regulation strategies that empower you to bounce back from even the greatest setbacks, relationship skills for surrounding yourself with a positive force of supporters, and breathing techniques that bring relaxation and restore health to your nervous system.