Helpers Needing Help

By Emily Pierson, M.Ed., Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

 

Are you a helping professional? Has COVID-19, secondary trauma, stressful working conditions, or an overwhelming caseload got you feeling burnt out? If so, you are not alone. The last few years have brought a significant amount of stress to everyone, not to mention doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers, pastors, and other professionals. Quarantines and lockdowns limit our access to patients and have caused us to change the way we provide care and help to those in need. Face masks and personal protective equipment are not only hot and uncomfortable and make it difficult to hear and read facial expressions. We won’t even mention, the seemingly ever-growing political tension and polarization that appears to have sprung up across the world. The way we interact with others has changed. The way we treat and provide services to our patients has changed. And the world has changed. If you are a helping professional experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue, you are not alone and it is something that likely needs to be addressed.

 

What is Burnout? Compassion Fatigue?

Burnout is physical, mental and emotional exhaustion caused by stress over                                                                                           time (1).  This can occur in any profession, and typically does not occur over night, but instead over longer stretches of time that are particularly stressful. Compassion fatigue, is very similar but typically occurs in professionals who help others and deal with patient “problems” (1). When a professional experiences compassion fatigue, they typically withdraw from patients and struggle to find empathy for them and others. Compassion fatigue may be caused by a number of reasons (2):

  • Providing therapy or help to those with severe concerns (COVID-19 or trauma clients, emergency room situations, etc.)
  • Working with a large number of clients (i.e., a large caseload)
  • Being threatened by a patient
  • Interacting with a client who is suicidal
  • Being exposed to dangerous environments
  • Providing grief counseling
  • Experiencing long work hours

These are just a few examples of situations that could lead to compassion fatigue. In addition to working with clients or   patients with severe emotional needs, professionals also have their own lives, friends, families and non-work-related responsibilities to attend to.  When work stress begins to creep into your personal life, fatigue can set in (2).

 

How Does Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Affect Professionals?

Compassion fatigue and burnout can affect professionals in more ways than one. Not only can they affect you physically, but also emotionally as well. Here are some examples (2):

  • Mood swings: Long-term stress can lead to changes in mood. The once optimistic helping professional can begin to become cynical and have negative thoughts about their clients, patients, or their workplace. They could also experience shifts in mood that occur suddenly (i.e., becoming frustrated or angry very quickly).
  • Detachment: Sometimes, one of the big signs you need a break is that you find yourself thinking “I don’t care” anymore. Not caring is our natural defense to protect ourselves from other people’s stress. It may seem difficult to imagine yourself not caring. One of the reasons that you went into your profession was to help others, right? Unfortunately, compassion fatigue can lead to a withdrawal from work and personal relationships as you may feel emotionally detached from others.
  • Mental health issues: When you help others with physical, mental or emotional problems constantly, a common result is that you may begin to feel anxious or depressed as well. Talking with anxious or traumatized clients may cause you to feel overly protective and anxious about your loved ones. for example. Talking to clients with depression can cause you to have trouble experiencing joy in the world. Similarly, to manage these feelings, some professionals may turn to self-medicating with substances and addiction concerns can arise.
  • Physical symptoms: Similar to mental health concerns, physical symptoms may emerge as well. Difficulty sleeping, exhaustion, appetite changes, headaches, or digestive issues may arise as a result of overworking or managing other people. Somatic symptoms are important to tune into  as they may be the only outward signs that compassion fatigue is occurring. And, as we all know, the physical symptoms of prolonged exposure to stress can lead to negative long-term health concerns.

I am a [Doctor, Nurse, Therapist, Pastor, Teacher]… I should Know How to Handle This…

If you have not yet experienced burnout or compassion fatigue in your professional career, count yourself lucky. Recent surveys show that burnout rates in all professions are on the rise. According to a study conducted by Indeed.com, more than half of Americans report feeling burnout following the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating almost a 10% increase from a pre-pandemic survey (4). This was true across all generations and genders. In fact, the same study showed that those who work from home also reported higher levels of burnout due to a lack of a work-life balance (4). It’s hard to  leave work at the office, when the office is in your home. In other words, just because helpers “should” know what to do to fight burnout, it does not make it easy.

Nurses, doctors, pastors, EMS providers, therapists, counselors, teachers, and other helping professionals are often working overtime during the pandemic. Telehealth is more accessible for patients which also means that providers are often asked to work longer hours on a computer than ever before. While some other business may have shutdown, the healthcare field continues to function. Combine the risks of working in the healthcare field during a pandemic with the unknown and every day job stress, and it’s no wonder that helpers may be struggling. You are not alone and it’s ok to voice your needs.

 

What Can I Do to Avoid Burnout?

Although there is no guaranteed way to avoid burnout or compassion fatigue, there are some things you can do to help yourself if compassion fatigue arises (3, 4):

  • Take a break: It’s easy to get stuck in a routine or to want to work more to get more done. Make a point to take breaks throughout the day. If you are allotted breaks at work, take them. Go for a walk, drink some water, journal, read a book. Do something non-work-related every few hours. When you get home, do your very best to leave work at the office. If you work from home, shut the office door, turn off the phone and focus on something else.
  • Make your health a priority: Again, it’s easy to get sucked into working all day. But, as the saying goes, a candle can’t burn at both ends. Exercise, set a goal for drinking water, get outside and get fresh air every day, eat well, sleep and take care of your mental health. Spend time with loved ones and supportive friends.
  • Take time away from work: If you have vacation days, now is the time to use them. You won’t be your best for your patients if you’re pouring from an empty cup. Go spend time with friends or family. Stay home, sleep in, and do something you enjoy. Plan a vacation as allowed, even if it’s just camping in the backyard or taking a road trip. Do something fun, enjoyable and special.
  • Talk about it: If you find yourself feeling vulnerable, stressed, or overwhelmed or swimming in negative thoughts, seek professional help. As previously discussed, there is some stigma surrounding professionals needing help. However, it is perfectly ok to seek assistance from an unbiased, third-party professional, who can provide insight, validate your feelings, and help combat compassion fatigue or burnout. Therapists can also help you explore your needs and help you find a healthy work-life balance.  Remote delivery of therapy via telehealth (i.e., telemedicine, on-line therapy, virtual therapy, e-therapy, etc.) makes accessing therapy in a discrete way easier than ever.  Many professionals prefer to meet with a therapist who is not from their area.  This is not only possible but also convenient with telehealth therapy.

There are a number of ways to avoid burnout or compassion fatigue, but sometimes it will take a real effort to keep them at bay. Imagine you were seeing a client who was struggling with a work-life balance, was becoming emotionally withdrawn and was having difficulty practicing healthy habits. What would you say to them? Would you tell them to keep doing more work or tell them to take a break? Would you encourage them to keep pushing through the fatigue and stress or would you encourage them to practice healthy boundaries and coping skills? Chances are, you would do the latter. It’s ok to tell yourself the same thing.

­­­­­­­­­­­­____________________________________________________________________________________

Emily offers a holistic approach to mental health and wellness. In addition to prioritizing mental well-being, she uses a strengths-based perspective to improve relationships and physical health.  She is passionate about helping adults and teens set and meet realistic, achievable goals, while also meeting them where they are on their journey.

Emily was born and raised in Alaska, where she received her Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  After moving to the “Lower 48”, she has been working as a therapist for the past four years.

References/Resources

 

  1. Helping the Helpers to Overcome Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. Therapy Aid Coalition. Retrieved from: https://therapyaid.org/blog/helping-the-helpers-to-overcome-compassion-fatigue-and-burnout. Accessed October 23, 2021.
  2. Compassion Fatigue: Symptoms to Look For. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/signs-compassion-fatigue. Accessed October 23, 2021.
  3. The Cost of Caring: 10 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue. Good Therapy. Retrieved from: https://www.goodtherapy.org/for-professionals/business-management/human-resources/article/cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue. Accessed October 23, 2021.
  4. Indeed Study Shows That Worker Burnout Is at Frighteningly High Levels: Here is what You Need to Do Now. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2021/04/05/indeed-study-shows-that-worker-burnout-is-at-frighteningly-high-levels-here-is-what-you-need-to-do-now/?sh=5d29cfb223bb. Accessed October 23, 2021.