Working Smart:  Dealing with Compassion Fatigue

Therapists are instruments of change, and rely upon discernment and resonance with  clients to effect good outcomes. This requires compassion and a generous spirit. Charles Figley (1995) points out there is a cost to such caring. For, without awareness  of the ways and degree to which internal resources are expended and replenished, therapists are at risk of becoming exhausted, overwhelmed, and even cynical.  

Burn out is a result of an imbalance between demands and resources. Individuals who work in high-volume agencies that serve clients with complex problems are candidates for burn out. Agency personnel often are over-worked, under-staffed, underpaid, and bereft of recognition and appreciation, conditions that can leave workers  numb or jaded. Burn out progresses in stages, but may culminate quickly, in a “that’s it!” moment that is difficult to reverse. Many talented people reach a breaking point and leave their jobs or even their professions. 

Compassion fatigue is related to emotional empathy. Practitioners who feel deeply the pain, frustration, humiliation or helplessness experienced by their clients can become porous and lose their resilience. The erosion of zeal and fortitude may take years, and can result in guilt, hopelessness, or doubt about the value of one’s professional contribution.

In either case, the best medicine is proaction and insight. Forewarned is forearmed. Understanding the challenges of any helping profession and how best to prepare for them helps build resistance to burn out and compassion fatigue. Choosing jobs wisely and realistically, and having measured expectations about what can be accomplished is crucial. Equally important is knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, which helps to innoculate professionals against both burn out and compassion fatigue. Other important factors include having a strong support system, and interests and hobbies that create a potent antidote to stress and disapointment.

If you would like more information about this topic,  look on-line for assessments that  measure burn out, compassion fatigue, and compassion satisfaction (e.g. Gentry and Baranowski), or contact me about consultation regarding secondary trauma and work stress.