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Recognizing Compassion Fatigue in the Helping Professions

A young woman sitting on a bench in a hallway, exhausted

Working in the nonprofit or social-impact sector offers an opportunity to build a meaningful and rewarding career. The concept of being part of something bigger than oneself or working for the greater good appeals to our sense of community, shared humanity, and global citizenship.

But sometimes the repetitive outreach can drain our emotional reserves. It’s easy to forget that our bodies, minds, and souls require nourishment. For those of us in the helping professions, a path to sustenance is the practice of self-care (this doesn’t mean simply taking a warm bath at night; although those are nice too).

The helping professions, defined

Helping professionals include fields such as medicine, nursing, psychotherapy, psychological counseling, social work, education, and other direct-service roles.

These types of jobs often involve intense, interpersonal interactions that occur repeatedly throughout the work day. Individuals in these settings are nurturers, caregivers, sounding boards, and listeners. They are constantly extending themselves outward in the service of assisting others.

When caring for others, it is common to lose sight of one’s own feelings and needs. For example, when a patient has been diagnosed with cancer, it is easy to get lost in our empathy. And when a client or co-worker, along with her three children, is evicted from her home, it is instinctually human to be swept away by her despair.

But when we become engulfed by the trauma we encounter at work, we put ourselves at risk of developing compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion Fatigue is generally defined as “...the sheer exhaustion experienced in clinical work as we do our very best to meet the needs of others, day after day, year after year.“ It sounds intense, because it is—and it can swallow us whole, if we let it.

This is where setting healthy boundaries becomes useful.

Strategies for self-care

We all have our reasons for choosing the career path (or paths) we take. I remember changing my course at the age of 23. In the aftermath of a life-altering event, I was left yearning to do something more purpose-driven.

I decided to make the transition from corporate communications to the field of social work. More specifically, I returned to graduate school to earn my MSW in clinical social work.

It turns out that I was ill-prepared for the depth, breadth, and scope of my role, and how working with vulnerable populations could so fundamentally impact me.

Fortunately, throughout my graduate program, I encountered responsible professors, clinicians, and mentors who insisted I pay attention to the process involved when walking with others through their challenges. Social workers process everything. In school this drove me a little nutty, but in life I am forever grateful for the disciplined guidance. I was constantly reminded to maintain my sense of otherness. I learned it was possible to help my clients without joining them in whatever the situation was that brought us together.

Boundaries are our buffers, our barriers of self-protection. But they don’t just magically happen. They require cultivation and maintenance.

How you “do” boundaries

Stick to your schedule. Do not come in early, and do not stay late. This one is hard because there will always be a compelling reason to stay. Resist the urge. You will thank me for this later.

Learn how to say no without feeling guilty. This point and the previous one are Boundary Setting 101. Know them and embrace them, for they will be the reason your work remains meaningful.

Process everything. If you are a social worker, you already know what this means because you wrote process recordings in your sleep throughout graduate school. For those of you who aren’t as familiar with this term, it means: pay attention to yourself and the feelings that come up for you while at work, write your feelings down in a journal or on your smartphone, and share these feelings with a supervisor or mentor—someone other than your pet.

Exercise, meditate, or find external pursuits that make you feel good. Figure out what it means to take care of yourself and stick to it. You can take a bath as part of this step, but do something to get sweaty beforehand. Your endorphins will pay you back with elevated moods and better quality sleep.

Get sweaty during the work day. Yes, you read that correctly. Recently, organizations have begun promoting work-life balance for their employees by offering programs such as in-office yoga, meditation, and massage. For those of us working remotely, proactively avoiding burnout is no less important—and since we aren’t in the office, the responsibility falls on us to be mindful of our own well-being. Taking a break midday for exercise or fresh air can make a world of difference for our morale and productivity.

Re-evaluate every now and then. Are you still finding fulfillment through your work? If not, process why. Perhaps your boundaries need an adjustment? Maybe you forgot to use your vacation days?

Reap the benefits

If you love what you do, take care of yourself. If you take care of yourself, it’s likely you’ll continue to love what you do.

Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

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About the Author

Jennifer Abcug, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in New York City, where she specializes in women’s life transitions.