Strategies for identifying and overcoming compassion fatigue
July 2020 | Specialty Care
BY CHERYL TAMASITIS AND MARY CHELF
Compassion fatigue can look different depending on the individual suffering from it.
If the focus is on individual issues rather than their underlying cause, problems are likely to continue.
Correctly identifying compassion fatigue is important for addressing its underlying factors, because dealing with its symptoms won't always help curb the root issue.
Inside every hospital, nursing home and social work setting are people who care. It takes a special kind of individual to pursue a career that focuses on service to others. Unfortunately, more and more is being asked of these caretakers, often at the expense of their own well-being. This and other factors are causing waves of "compassion fatigue" in the compassionate services industry, and it's affecting more than just the caregivers.
More than 80% of U.S. workers report significant work-related stress, costing businesses as much as $300 billion per year in absenteeism and treatment-related expenses, according to the Forbes Nonprofit Council. But it can be even worse for nonprofit workers. In Canada, one study observed people who worked with the homeless and found that 25% were suffering from burnout, while 36% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many organizations face similar challenges, whether they know it or not. Compassion fatigue can look different depending on the individual suffering from it-absenteeism, tiredness and irritability can all be symptoms of the larger issue.
If the focus is on individual issues rather than their underlying cause, problems are likely to continue. That's why understanding compassion fatigue is critical. To maintain high-quality care, it's important to be educated about the signs and consequences of compassion fatigue and its potential solutions.
Let's take a moment to explore compassion fatigue, its impact on the compassionate services industry and how to protect caregivers.
Caretakers endure so much on a daily basis. They work long shifts for sometimes just over minimum wage, and they cover multiple job responsibilities due to staffing shortages. All of these factors can weigh down caretakers and contribute to the exhaustion known as compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.
Compassion fatigue can show itself in many ways, including:
Many of these symptoms resemble those associated with burnout, but there are important distinctions. Primarily, compassion fatigue manifests itself in a sudden burst, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Burnout can be more prolonged, sometimes revealing itself over the length of a career.
Correctly identifying compassion fatigue is important for addressing its underlying factors, because only dealing with its symptoms won't necessarily help curb the root issue. That's why employers must acknowledge compassion fatigue as a legitimate disrupter of the compassionate services industry.
There's no one reason for compassion fatigue. Instead, it comes from a combination of social and workplace factors, including:
Staffing shortages play an especially important role in compassion fatigue. Due in part to higher education requirements and low wages, there is a high demand for caretakers. And when there isn't enough staff to go around, more is being asked of the caretakers available. Just one caretaker suffering from compassion fatigue can cause a domino effect on the other staff members and lower the quality of care exponentially. Effectively, if that individual loses focus on their role, others will need to step up and fill that "care gap," which adds to their stress and can lead to more compassion fatigue.
Caretaker well-being should be a prime concern for employers. These individuals not only care for others on a daily basis, they comprise the backbone of their organization. When their health and mental fortitude decline, so does the business - often introducing care gaps that hurt the business further.
A care gap is created when one staff member lets their responsibilities slip, forcing co-workers to either pick up the slack or let the quality of care decline. This is especially concerning for midsize employers with limited resources, since it takes fewer fatigued workers to compromise the entire organization. More to the point, when caretakers lose sight of whom they're caring for, they lose customer trust. And lost trust means lost business.
But lost business isn't the only concern. Caretakers suffering from compassion fatigue are also more apathetic about their roles, which can lead to costly mistakes.
There are many reasons for compassion fatigue, which means there are many ways to combat its debilitating effects. The success of any treatment avenue will depend on why the individual is experiencing compassion fatigue, which will differ by person. Treating compassion fatigue is less about achieving relief and more about addressing the complex social issues that contribute to the fatigue in the first place.
For instance, a caretaker struggling to pay their bills will have different needs than a caretaker dealing with traumatic stress. Both people might benefit from similar treatments, but it's important to understand that there's no one-size-fits-all strategy. In fact, overcoming compassion fatigue takes a concerted effort from both employees and employers.
While there's no "silver bullet" for overcoming compassion fatigue, these strategies can help. You can find additional resources in The Chronicle of Philanthropy's compassion fatigue toolkit. The challenge is getting the right people into the right treatments and keeping them there. Employers should consider proactively reaching out to staff members and asking them about their fatigue levels. Treating caretakers' compassion fatigue early can help curb potential issues before they arise.
Compassion fatigue isn't always easy to spot, especially if an employer has a large workforce. If an employer is dealing with staffing issues such as absenteeism, substance abuse, general apathy or subpar performance, they might have a compassion fatigue problem. The next step will be identifying ways to overcome it.
Approaches will vary from employer to employer, but some high-impact areas to examine are staff engagement, rewards and incentivization. Treatment options such as therapy can be helpful, but sometimes hosting a fun event can be enough to revitalize a caretaking workforce.