I have been in the helping profession for 14 years. I remember when I decided to pursue the Masters in Social Work (MSW) in 2003; my mentor at the time challenged my decision. She asked, “You can be anything you want, why social work?” She begged me to choose a different profession due to the high expectations and low compensation in the profession. My answer, “I love helping others and if I chose another profession I would be doing so strictly for the pay. I could not see myself pursuing another profession.” I felt it in my spirit. GOD called me to the field of social work. Eight years later I still would not change my answer. Most days I share the excitement and energy I had 14 years ago. I experience both rewarding and challenging days. The rewarding days motivate me and allow me to keep hope in situations that appear hopeless. When I experience challenging days or weeks, I have to remind myself of my why and the cause is bigger than me.
I would be remiss not to mention those days that are beyond challenging. These are days when you find yourself running on “fumes,” uncertain if you have it in you to answer another phone call, respond to another email, sit through another session or meeting, complete more paperwork or respond to another crisis. Whether you worked in the helping profession for a few weeks months or years; you are absorbing someone else’s energy, emotions and problems almost daily. Absorbing this level of intensity on a consistent basis can result in “Compassion Fatigue.”
Compassion fatigue, also known as burn-out, secondary traumatic stress or vicarious traumatization is defined as a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. This condition is common in individuals working directly with trauma victims, individuals providing any type of therapy, coaching, and case management or any service that requires one to assist in management of emotional and/or physical pain. This condition is common in direct line workers or first responders such as EMT’s, nurses, doctors, social workers, counselors and psychologists.
How do I know if I am experiencing compassion fatigue?
Recognize the signs!
In recognizing the signs, reflect on the baseline of your emotions, energy, sleep patterns, appetite and socialization.
Do you feel exhausted even after getting more than 6 hours of sleep each night?
Do you consistently have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep at night?
Do you find yourself consistently dreading meeting with clients?
Do you consistently struggle with being present in sessions with clients?
Do you find yourself consistently desensitizing from the trauma experienced by your clients?
Are you having nightmares of the trauma experienced by your clients?
Have you given up hope on your ability to help your clients make positive changes?
Do consistently become anxious when thinking about work?
Have you noticed an extreme increase or decrease in your appetite?
If you answered yes to 4 or more questions, I highly recommend that you seek the self-care options (which may include seeking professional help) that I will discuss in the next section.
Other red flags include
Diminished sense of personal accomplishments
Physical and mental exhaustion
Upon recognizing the aforementioned signs of compassion fatigue, we have time to prevent a “full blown episode” of being burned out.
Know your limits. Set boundaries with your clients. This means not taking calls after business hours (after ensuring that they know who to call in the event of crisis). If you are one who feels compelled to answer the phone after hours; turn it off! You are not ignoring your clients; you are modeling the setting of boundaries. Boundaries keep us safe and you will need your energy to continue to help them. It is important for our clients to understand our roles in their lives as professionals. Lines can get blurred because we are giving care and seeing them at their most vulnerable states. However, as a wise woman told me, “You can’t be everything to everybody” Set your boundary!
Unplug. Similar to turning your phone off; when you are off, enjoy your time off. Do not think about work; do not check your emails, voicemails and it may be helpful not to discuss work. For example, if you are exhausted at the beginning of the work week, take the day off and do not feel guilty. Use this time to recharge. Think of your body as a battery that needs re-charged from time to time. Listen to your body.
Breathe. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, breathe! Take a long, deep breath in and slowly exhale. Breathing calms the reactive part of our brain. It is so automatic, that oftentimes we forget or are unaware of the benefits of taking deep breaths. Deep breathing helps us to find our center.
Seek Supervision. Unfortunately, most of us get too comfortable in our routine and neglect the supervision and guidance of a more seasoned professional. Some of the benefits of supervision include an objective perspective and a supportive environment. An objective perspective during supervision can assist you in viewing your situation through a different lens, thus shifting from a place of cynicism to a place of empathy. The support of a supervisor is invaluable. Sometimes the role of the supervisor may be to listen to your concerns and encourage (or even direct) you to take time off.
Lean on your support systems: Often times we assist our clients in finding their support systems, now it’s your turn. Confide in your spouse, significant other, best friend, family member, or trusted colleague. You do not have to battle this alone.
Most of us in the helping profession find ourselves burned out in just a few days of returning to work from a week vacation. How do you learn to manage yourself in “the pressure cooker?” The most important thing you can do to sustain yourself is to develop your core principles and values of practice. If you are working for a company, you may want to ask yourself,” Does this company’s mission line up with my personal mission statement?” If the answer is no, it may be time to re-evaluate your plan. If you are a business owner, you may want to ask yourself, “Is my company equipped to serve our target population?” If not, it may be time to go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate your plan for meeting this need. Or, do you still desire to help this population?
As helping professionals, we get the privilege of having people trust us at their most vulnerable states, opening up their hearts, minds and lives to us. We are charged with the responsibility to do no harm. A huge part of doing no harm is recognizing when we are burned out and taking action. Sometimes helping is our best and worst quality as our help can hurt our clients if we are giving from a dry well. There are a lot of withdrawals being deducted from our spirits on a daily basis. It is up to us to find ways to make healthy deposits into our souls. This may include seeking help, and that is okay, we are humans and we are not exempt!
Now it’s your turn to share. Do you struggle to disconnect? What are some of the things you do or plan to do to disconnect when feeling burned out?
If you or someone you know is displaying any of the signs mentioned in the article, contact me for a free 15 minute consultation at (412) 414-7782 email@example.com. You do not have to go through this alone!