Compassion fatigue: a symptom of caring

listening to their anguished voices she too became undone and the lines of life etched in the palms of her hands faded in all the wrong places . . .

Crawshaw, Caitlin. 2009-09-12. “Caring workers pay price: Compassion fatigue flies under radar.” Edmonton Journal.

“Compassion fatigue is often associated with nurses, who care for the sick and dying, but any worker who regularly deals with human suffering can become desensitized and detached. Beyond employees in the obvious professions–such as social work, nursing and counselling–chaplains, teachers, humane workers, midwives, personal support workers, lawyers, workers at women’s shelters, journalists and even those manning the phones at social insurance organizations can also be affected. Even those caring for others outside of the workplace, such as an elderly parent or sick spouse, can feel drained of their emotional and physical energy. “People who provide care with compassion and empathy can experience compassion fatigue,” explains Devon Tayler, an Edmonton social worker and compassion fatigue consultant. “That’s the good news about it — it’s a consequence of caring, and human beings care for each other. The downside is, we often don’t recognize that cost.” Those who suffer from compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress disorder, often isolate themselves at work and limit communication with their clients or coworkers. They can become sick often and miss work, and ultimately become completely burned out, taking stress leave or quitting their jobs suddenly. “Burnout is a physical, social, emotional and spiritual situation where people have really lost themselves and lost meaning,” says Tayler. Those being cared for can also be severely affected. Some people with compassion fatigue start to dehumanize their patients, choosing to view them as case studies or clients, rather than as human beings. This can “block the story” of those receiving care and increase the likelihood of caregivers making mistakes. “We might gloss over something, thinking it’s not that important, when another person might think it really is important,” says Tayler. But this isn’t just a workplace problem. “Compassion fatigue impacts work . . . but it also impacts how we are in our families and in the community,” she says. Sufferers often stop doing the things they once enjoyed, as they feel utterly spent at day’s end. Many can do little more than zone out in front of the TV, disconnecting from their loved ones. Francoise Mathieu, a counsellor in Kingston, Ont., says awareness of compassion fatigue has improved since she started giving sessions on the subject in 2001, but many professionals still know very little about it. Also, she says students aren’t being prepared for this professional inevitability. “To me, it’s a huge issue that needs to be recognized as an occupational health and safety hazard in the workplace.” While compassion fatigue can be confusing for people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others, Mathieu assures people that it’s a symptom of caring. “The irony is that the best and most caring employees are the most at risk (Crawshaw 2009-09-12).”

Crawshaw, Caitlin. 2009-09-12. “Caring workers pay price: Compassion fatigue flies under radar.” Edmonton Journal.

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