Dedicating ourselves to caring for others can be incredibly rewarding, providing purpose and joy in our lives. Less talked about are the risks of burnout and compassion fatigue, which can make the work of caregiving difficult.
In a report by the journal Aging & Mental Health, upwards of 70% of family caregivers experience high levels of caregiver burden, or stress, and as many as 60% experience signs of burnout or compassion fatigue. While healthcare workers suffer from similar effects of burnout, a study from the Journal of Adult Development found that family caregivers tend to be more susceptible to compassion fatigue than professional caregivers because they often lack a support system.
What is compassion fatigue?
We’ve all had days when we feel “burned out.” Does that mean we have compassion fatigue? Not necessarily, says Maria Hood, LCSW, ACSW, CCM, CCM, director of admissions, United Hebrew of New Rochelle.
“Burnout is something that is predominantly associated with worker stress, such as feeling overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. We might feel burned out because of other stressors in our lives that are impacting work-life balance. Over time, people who are burned out start to experience feelings of apathy, not care as much about the work, feel tired of everything, and fatigued. Individuals may also experience physical symptoms, like muscle pain, headaches, elevated heart rate or high blood pressure. But it’s a slow boil that accrues over time.”
Adds Hood, “Compassion fatigue has similar kinds of burnout symptoms, but it’s specifically related to caring for others. It’s that feeling that you have no more empathy left to give. It’s the strain of feeling someone else’s pain, and not having the emotional bandwidth to care for those who need your help.”
Compassion fatigue can be experienced by healthcare providers, or anybody taking care of someone else over time. It can be an adult child taking care of a parent, a spouse taking care of an unwell partner, or an aging parent taking care of a disabled child.
Strategies to prevent or overcome compassion fatigue
Hood emphasizes that family caregivers may be suffering from compassion fatigue when the little daily stresses of caring for a disabled or aging loved one build up and start to wear on you. In addition to physical symptoms, issues like hypervigilance, a form of PTSD which triggers anxiety, fear, or sense of doom, may also be present. She recommends five strategies for preventing and healing the effects of compassion fatigue:
- The first line of defense is knowledge. Knowing what it is, understanding it, and being able to name it, is first and foremost. Let people know if they are a caregiver or healthcare provider that this can happen to them and it’s not something that they caused. It is part and parcel of our humanity — feeling empathy, being concerned for other people. It’s a good thing to care deeply, but it means that you are open to being impacted negatively, as well as positively. In the healthcare profession, we do what we do in part for the secondary benefit of feeling good about taking care of others.
- Self-awareness is key. By the same token, when you get into the world of another—feeling their pain to some degree and becoming fatigued as a result, becoming self-aware through education, knowledge of symptoms, and changes in ourselves as caregivers, is vital to stopping compassion fatigue in its tracks.
- Daily stress management. Check in regularly with your body and your state of mind. If you’re not used to doing that, there are simple tools and self-care techniques you can practice, like deep breathing, meditation, yoga, walking in nature or just having a good heart to heart with a close friend.
- Take time for self-care. If you’re a caregiver in the healthcare industry and it’s work-related compassion fatigue, make sure that you are working reasonable hours and that you take time when you are home to decompress. Maybe it’s a bubble bath, reading a good book or taking a walk in nature with people you know and love.
- Finally, seek help. If you feel like you cannot manage alone anymore, remember, we’re all in this together and there are many other people who are either in it too or have been through it. So, reaching out to somebody that you know and trust or joining a support group of caregivers is often a really great way to relieve the burden. Oftentimes, another caregiver who has been through it can give you some support and love, as well as tips and tricks for better management to help you through. Individual counseling is another effective option if it gets really tough. There are plenty of good social workers, psychologists, and therapists out there that can help you manage stress.