For those of us who work in caregiving environments, we are constantly presented with emotional challenges. Compassion Fatigue symptoms result from the chronic stress of care giving work. Leading traumatologist Eric Gentry notes that people who are attracted to caregiving often enter the field already compassion fatigued. They strongly identify with suffering or traumatized individuals, or those in need. They also tend to display other-directed care giving. In other words, they may have been taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. In addition, ongoing self-care and self-nurturing practices may be absent from their daily lives. Sound familiar?
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
According to Dr. Charles Figley, Director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, Compassion Fatigue is
a state experienced by those helping people in distress. It is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped, to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helping professional. It has been often described as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional and physical pain (Figley, 1982). Sometimes it is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the service provider’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones, and their co-workers.
Compassion Fatigue: Signs and Symptoms
Compassion Fatigue is marked by increased cynicism at work and a loss of enjoyment of one’s career. It can eventually transform into deeper feelings of depression, secondary traumatic stress, and stress-related illnesses. The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brought us all into this work: our empathy and compassion for others.
According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (2017), sufferers can exhibit several symptoms, including hopelessness, decreased pleasure, irritability, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.
While the symptoms are very often disruptive, depressive, and irritating, an awareness of the symptoms and their negative effects can lead to positive change, transformation, and resiliency. Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., a leading Compassion Fatigue specialist, notes that everyone has his or her own warning signs that may indicate Compassion Fatigue. These include:
- Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
- Anger and irritability
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs
- Dread of working with certain clients or patients
- Diminished sense of enjoyment of career
- Disruption to world view, heightened anxiety, or irrational fears
- Intrusive imagery or dissociation
- Hypersensitivity or insensitivity to emotional material
- Difficulty separating work life from personal life
- Absenteeism – missing work, or taking many sick days
- Impaired ability to make decisions and care for clients or patients
- Problems with intimacy and issues in personal relationships
The need for good self-care must not be overlooked. Good self-care and wellness begins with awareness. Heightened awareness encourages insights into past traumas and painful situations that are being relived within the context of symptoms and behaviors. The goal is to heal past traumas that currently serve as obstacles to wellness. A good therapist can be especially helpful. In addition, good self-care will require developing a consistent self-care regiment, including regular exercise, a healthy dieting, social activities, journaling, meditation and restful sleep.
The quality of the helping professionals’ work is closely related to the quality of the supervision that they receive. We can’t be personally falling apart and serve as an example of what good care-giving service is all about. We must take and appreciate down time for reflection and planning. To encourage others, we must take time for ourselves. This includes taking time for lunch and vacations, relaxation, meditation and peer support.
What Is Political Fatigue and Activist Burnout?
In our current unpredictable and fear-provoking social-political climate, we are most susceptible to Political Fatigue, which occurs when political agendas or policies (i.e., voter suppression, cut backs, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQIA+ initiatives) create a nagging sense of hopelessness when it comes to the efficacy of political action or advocacy. It can lead to anger, anxiety, confusion, frustration and fear of an unsafe world, which can impact our physical, emotional, and psychological health and well-being.
When this extreme fatigue is experienced in the workplace, the organization suffers under many far-reaching symptoms of stress: friction among co-workers, staff-management tension, increased absenteeism, excessive medial issues, high turnover and rising workers’ compensation costs. Addressing fatigue within an organization requires stated and demonstrated value of staff, clear directions, good supervision, training, focus on staff relationships and morale, time, patience, understanding and a renewed vision for the future. Losing your vision can further stress and incapacitate staff. We must fortify ourselves and our staff by incorporating “self-care” into our organizational plans – which can motivate employees, energize the entire organization, and effect positive change.
According to Aliya Khan (Everyday Feminism, 2015), Activist Burnout is the feeling of pessimism and physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion that comes with advocacy and helping work. Many people become activists because they have passion about social justice issues and how these issues affect the lives of those we serve. In these challenging political times, it’s not unusual that by the time we reach the point of needing a break, we may be suffering from compassion fatigue. Activists who develop both professional and personal self-care and wellness strategies tend to be more resilient, and can shift, grow, and change course.
What Is Oppression Fatigue?
Oppression Fatigue, a term coined by leading counselor, consultant, coach and educator Irene Greene, is the heavy exhaustion that comes from being oppressed – the emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical exhaustion that comes from enduring daily micro and macroaggressions of personal and collective violence, rejection, inequities, discrimination, invisibility and injustices caused by the systematic privileges of one group(s) over another group(s). As leaders, colleagues, and helping professionals it is crucial that we can identify, understand, talk about, and learn to address oppression and the intersections of race and racism with gender bias, LGBTQIA+ bias, gender fluidity bias, transmisogyny, class bias, bias against people with disabilities, xenophobia, and religious bias (including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia), plus other forms that bias may take.
We must also understand that the constructs of power, privilege, hierarchical rank and culture are always a part
of the individual and institutional context and must be taken into consideration as we address racism and other oppressions. There are things that we can and must do as accountable leaders and colleagues. The first is to speak openly about our own struggles with compassion, political, and oppression fatigue. The conspiracy of silence within the profession about any fatigue that affects us as helping professionals is no different than the silence about bulling and sexual harassment in the past.
Also, remember that for helping professionals who are themselves struggling with the impact of Oppression Fatigue (due to daily microaggressions, rejection, inequities, discrimination, invisibility and injustices caused by the systematic privileges), the burden is heavy and exhausting. “If you see something, say something,” as using our privilege can greatly impact the quality of our work environment, our relationships with colleagues, morale and the overall health of our organization. We must engage with each other in a non-shaming, non-blameful, non-judgmental collaborative manner to create safe and brave work spaces. We can then tackle the challenging questions, engage in difficult discussions, and bring everyone’s authentic voice to the table as we address Oppression Fatigue within our workplace and offer our “collective best” to those we serve. Let’s examine how this Fatigue Cluster looks at the organizational level:
Organizational Symptoms of Compassion, Political and Oppression Fatigue
- High absenteeism
- Constant conflict in co-worker relationships
- Inability for teams to work well together
- Desire among staff members to break company rules
- Outbreaks of aggressive behaviors among staff
- Inability of staff to complete assignments and tasks
- Inability of staff to respect and meet deadlines
- Lack of flexibility among staff members
- Negativism towards management
- Strong reluctance toward change
- Inability of staff to believe improvement is possible
- Lack of a vision for the future
Co-Occurring Fatigue: Compassion, Political, and Oppression Fatigue
Compassion, Political, and Oppression Fatigue can cause physical, emotional, and spiritual fatigue or exhaustion that can overwhelm staff and cause a decline in both morale and productivity. Over time, the constant outputting of emotional energy, typical in the healing professions, can lead to excessive fatigue within the management and the staff – especially during these scary, uncertain political times, when many of us are suffering from co-occurring fatigue, and advocacy and activism is a central part of our organization’s function.
When this fatigue hits critical mass in the workplace, the organization itself suffers. Chronic absenteeism, spiraling Worker’s Comp costs, high turnover rates, friction between employees, and friction between staff and management are among organizational symptoms that can surface, creating additional stress and pressure
on the entire organization.
Healing an organization takes time, patience, and most important, commitment. An awareness of the various forms of fatigue their far-reaching effects must be present at the highest level of management and work its way down, encompassing all staff as well as volunteers.
Compassion/Political/Oppression Fatigue causes physical, emotional and spiritual fatigue or exhaustion that can overwhelm staff and cause a decline in both morale and productivity. Fatigue is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the service provider’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones, and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of one’s career – which eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress, and stress-related illnesses. Political Fatigue/Activist Burnout comes with political and advocacy and helping work in this uncertain, frightening political climate. Oppression Fatigue is due to daily microaggressions, rejection, inequities, discrimination, invisibility and injustices caused by the systematic privileges, the burden is heavy and exhausting. Good organizationally generated self-care and wellness begins with awareness.
Workshop and Training Topics Presented by Irene Greene (www.irenegreene.com). Care for Mental Health, Social Service and Medical Professionals, Social Justice Workers, Caregivers, and Healers; PTS: Political Trauma Stress: Self-Care in these Social Political Times; Professional and Personal Self-Care for Helpers: It’s Much More Than a Massage; Professional and Personal Self-Care for LGBTQ+ Helpers; Vicarious Trauma, Burnout and Secondary Victimization; Compassion Fatigue Is Much More Serious Than Burn-Out; Oppression Fatigue and Healing Justice; Caring for Others’ Trauma When Dealing with Our Own; Self-Care and Relationship Care Plans for the Socially Conscious; When We White Helping Professionals Work with People of Color: Mixing Good Intentions, Good Practices, and White Privilege
Books for Helping Professionals
- Morrissette, Patrick J., The Pain of Helping: Psychological Injury of Helping Professions
- Figley, Charles, Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized.
- Saakvitne, Karen W. and Laurie Anne Pearlman, Transforming the Pain: A Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization
- Simon, David, M.D., Free to Love, Free to Heal: Heal Your Body by Healing Your Emotions
Self-Care Books for Professionals
- Borysenko, J. (2003) Inner peace for busy people: 52 simple strategies for transforming your life.
Fanning, P. & Mitchener, H. (2001) The 50 best ways to simplify your life