For mental health professionals, every day presents an opportunity to give. And every day, many mental health professionals give too much. Whether a family therapist working with families in crisis, a school counselor helping young people stay on the path to their dreams or a hospital social worker helping patients navigate the seemingly endless piles of paperwork and decisions to be made, the result is the same: while mental health professionals still care deeply for others, constantly focusing on others’ needs and issues can lead to exhaustion on emotional, spiritual and physical levels.
Formerly known as “burnout,” the phenomenon of exhaustion in the mental health profession is now more commonly called “compassion fatigue.” Working in environments that present significant challenges often produces compassion fatigue. Essentially, caregivers expend so much energy caring for others that they lack the energy or capacity to care for themselves, leading to anxiety, depression, illness and other issues.
Often, mental health professionals can develop strategies for avoiding compassion fatigue while studying for their careers. However, if a degree program fails to address compassion fatigue, many mental health professionals may not notice the symptoms. Ignoring the symptoms could lead to more serious health issues, conflict or even the desire for a career change. That’s why it’s so important to become educated so one can recognize the signs and take steps to correct the issue as soon as possible.
The Signs of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is not always obvious to others. In many cases, mental health professionals continue to perform their duties as usual, especially when the symptoms are mostly internal: frustration or anger with a bureaucratic billing or referral system, for example, or anxiety at not being able to provide adequate support to a client.
That’s why the most important step of compassion fatigue is self-recognition. Experts note that when a provider thinks that he or she is experiencing compassion fatigue, it is most likely true. It’s also important to note that the signs do not appear overnight. It takes several months, even years, for fatigue to develop. Feelings change gradually, until eventually one feels almost numb to the suffering of others.
However, the signs are generally clear. Mental health providers often experience several of the following issues when experiencing compassion fatigue:
- Irritability or anger, often at minor issues
- Issues with substance abuse or food
- Physical symptoms including headaches, gastrointestinal upset, high blood pressure and sleep disturbances
- Feelings of inadequacy and/or perfectionism
- Inability to feel happy
- Intense devotion to work and a refusal to take time off
While not all of these signs immediately point to compassion fatigue, more often than not, experiencing several of these together without any other obvious stressors indicates the problem lies with work.
Preventing Compassion Fatigue
While some argue that all caregivers experience some degree of compassion fatigue at one point or another, in most cases, it is preventable. The best way to prevent compassion fatigue is to practice self-care and know when burnout is starting to set in so you can take corrective action.
Specifically, mental health professionals can help maintain their own mental health by:
Setting Boundaries. Boundaries are important in any career, perhaps none more so than in the mental health professions. This means taking time for yourself outside of work to focus on activities that you enjoy and bring you energy. There’s nothing wrong with taking time off and caring for yourself; in fact, it makes you a better practitioner. Commit to a set work schedule each day, and when the day is done, leave the office and focus on other priorities.
Maintaining Physical Health. When you are tired, run-down and sick, it’s hard to care for others’ needs. Again, by taking care of yourself physically, you’ll feel better and be better equipped to handle the demands of your work. Get plenty of rest, exercise regularly, take time to eat healthy foods and eliminate bad habits, such as smoking or excess drinking, from your life.
Building a Support System. Spending time with family and friends can recharge your batteries and help you maintain a more positive outlook. Do not let your personal relationships fall by the wayside, but instead focus on keeping that support system strong. If necessary, seek counseling services for yourself to help you work through issues you’re facing and maintain a healthy perspective.
Compassion fatigue is common, but it doesn’t have to be inevitable or career-ending. Learn to recognize the signs and maintain a healthy work-life balance, and you’ll have a better chance of maintaining your passion for helping others.
About the Author: Julie Ackerman works in the employee assistance program for a large hospital.