Compassion fatigue

Compassion Fatigue: Overcoming a Common Challenge for People Who Help Others

Any type of work that puts people under large amounts of stress for extended periods of time can lead to burnout. Burnout is often identified by feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment, and loss of personal identity. High-stress professions such as law enforcement, nursing and legal work are notorious for high rates of burnout, which can also lead to high employee turnover.

However, individuals who work in the “helping professions”—such as nurses, physicians, educators, social workers and counselors—may also experience a special type of burnout known as compassion fatigue. With this type of burnout, a helping professional may feel overwhelmed by the struggles and challenges of their clients, which can create emotional distress in their own lives.

Rachele Love, one of our life skills specialists, has personal experience with the challenges that can come with working in a helping profession. Consider Rachele’s story about her close brush with compassion fatigue when she first joined our team in Putnam County.

Rachele Love’s Story of Professional Stress and Adaptation

Rachele Love, Life Skills Specialist at Cummins Behavioral Health
Rachele Love, Life Skills Specialist at Cummins Behavioral Health

Before she joined Cummins, Rachele Love already had a wealth of experience working in the helping professions. She previously spent 17 years working as a paraeducator, assisting school-aged children and teens who had mild, moderate and severe disabilities. In addition, she also served five years active duty in the U.S. Army, which instilled her with a strong sense of duty and personal achievement. “When you’re a soldier, you’re given a directive, and you don’t just meet it—you exceed it. That’s just what’s been ingrained in my life,” Rachele says.

When Rachele joined our team at Cummins, she knew she wanted to continue her work with children, so she became a school-based life skills specialist (or LSS) at Cloverdale middle school and high school. Although the work was different than it had been in a special education environment, Rachele took to it quickly. Many of the youths she counseled had behavioral problems rather than mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, but Rachele had little difficulty connecting with them. “The rapport and relationship with all of my kids was great,” she says.

However, scheduling appointments with her consumers soon became an issue. Rachele was only permitted to pull students from non-core classes such as computers, physical education, art and music, but she also needed to rotate through these electives so her students didn’t miss any one class too many times. Despite her best efforts, these restrictions caused her to start falling short of her counseling expectations. “My position was productivity-based,” Rachele explains. “The expectation was 25 hours of direct clinical care each week, and I was struggling to meet that. It was a huge problem for me.”

Rachele’s supervisors, for their part, were very supportive. They encouraged her not to worry about her hours and just focus on providing high-quality care for her students. But even with this reassurance, Rachele had trouble accepting her own perceived shortcomings. “I was definitely stressed out about it, and I would say a little bit depressed as well, because it’s really a punch in the gut when I can’t meet an expectation,” she says. “I felt like I was letting myself and everyone else down.”

Rachele was struggling, and she knew that the situation would only get worse if it continued. Clearly, something needed to change.

Shelby Rusk on the What, Why and How of Compassion Fatigue

Shelby Rusk, MSW, LSW, Youth Therapist at Cummins Behavioral Health
"In this field, we're trained to have empathy and compassion toward others, but sometimes that compassion and empathy can become overwhelming. Then our consumer's stressors can become our stressors," says Shelby Rusk, MSW, LSW, Youth Therapist at Cummins Behavioral Health.

Rachele’s story is not a textbook example of compassion fatigue, but it does bear many similarities. As mentioned above, compassion fatigue is a sort of burnout caused by repeated exposure to people who are experiencing difficult life circumstances. The psychologist Charles Figley, the so-called “Father of Compassion Fatigue,” has described it as “vicarious traumatization”—a phenomenon that occurs when therapists and other helping professionals personally experience the trauma felt by the people they are helping.

“Compassion fatigue is very similar to burnout, but it can affect us faster,” says Shelby Rusk, a Youth Therapist at our Montgomery County office. “We take on the suffering of our consumers, and we start to feel what our consumers feel. Having intrusive thoughts, having trouble sleeping, maybe being irritable, withdrawing from our supports or not wanting to do things that previously brought us joy— these would definitely be some things to look for.”

According to the American Institute of Stress, some other common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • More intense emotions
  • Diminished cognitive abilities
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Depression and post-traumatic stress
  • Loss of self-worth
  • Loss of hope and personal sense of meaning
  • Anger toward people or situations that have caused harm to others

Why does compassion fatigue happen in the first place? As human beings, it is natural for us to feel concern when we witness another person suffering. Those who work in the helping professions encounter suffering much more often than the average person—and perhaps more than our brains are equipped to handle. “Every hour is a new traumatic story, and hearing all these traumatic stories can really wear on a person,” Shelby says.

In addition, Shelby speculates that individuals who join the helping professions may be especially sensitive to other people’s suffering. “I think people who come into these fields just naturally want to help others. A lot of times, we want to fix problems, so we take on a lot of responsibilities for our consumers,” she says.

Returning from the Brink of Exhaustion

If compassion fatigue is caused by overexposure to other people’s suffering, then it can be prevented by limiting this exposure and focusing more energy on ourselves. But how is this possible for someone whose entire profession revolves around helping others?

It begins with basic self-care routines like getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and practicing mindfulness whenever possible. According to Shelby, it’s also important to focus on positive outcomes and situations when working in the helping professions, which is where gratitude exercises can come in handy. “You are going to see more challenges with people than not, so it’s important to focus on the positives and the successes you had,” she says.

However, it’s also crucial that helping professionals have access to good support systems both inside and outside of work. Shelby says, “Having a positive support system at work is huge. Ideally, we need co-workers who can help us have fun and not get stuck in negative ruts, and we also need leaders who can give us guidance. But that support system outside of work is very important, as well, to help you separate your two lives. You have to separate them, and it can be hard when you live and breathe work.”

Having said that, let’s return now to Rachele’s story. Was she able to find balance in her work and turn back from the brink of burnout and compassion fatigue? Fortunately, she was.

“I have to give credit to Anna Harmless,” Rachele says. “She was my team lead, and she was just so helpful, and just incredible. I met with Anna and I told her, ‘We have to talk, because this isn’t working for me. But I love this company and I don’t want to leave.’ “ For Rachele, the solution was not to change her line of work, but to change her assignment within the organization. She left the school-based environment and started working as an LSS at Green Willows, a supported group living home operated by Cummins. “Green Willows sounded perfect for me, because it was very close to what I had done for three years prior to joining Cummins,” she says.

Today, Rachele’s story shows that it is possible to recover from the stress and fatigue that sometimes afflicts those who work in the helping professions. “It’s been awesome. I’m just so happy here,” she says.

For more information about challenges that helping professionals may face in their line of work, we recommend our blog posts on multitasking and the Imposter Syndrome below!

Stress Can Be Good For You (as in this picture of a woman doing her homework)
Multitasking, Attention-Deficit Trait, and Boundaries
Perfectionism and 'Hurry Worry'
Embracing Your Inner Expert: Perfectionism and the Impostor Syndrome in Mental Health