Combatting Compassion Fatigue in our Frontline Workers
This post was updated on May 15, 2023.
We know the past few years have been tough, dealing with a slew of mandates, restrictions, and health challenges. We’ve all been through many ups and many downs, but we’ve certainly learned more about ourselves in the process. Something important that we have learned is that the best way to take care of others is to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves first. Our frontline workers have had a time unlike no other. It’s time we talked about emotional labor and the cost of caring: compassion fatigue.
In all professions, we — of course– must perform the tasks listed in our job descriptions. But there’s another piece of the puzzle that many people fail to talk about that’s contributed to a lot of mental health struggles during this pandemic: emotional labor. Now, this goes beyond our daily tasks and delves into the emotional parts of our jobs. Psychologists call “emotional labor” the effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing doesn’t match how you feel. This could be making small talk in an elevator after work when you’re already spent from the day or being polite to a customer who is upset at their service. While you’re feeling some way inside, you outwardly show something else to appear more professional and composed.
Well, let me reassure you that it’s okay if this is exhausting. Putting on face is not easy, especially when dealing with all that we have over the last few years. Sadly, of this emotional labor piece, another thing was born: compassion fatigue.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is something that is experienced by those who are in “helping professions,” such as healthcare workers, teachers, HR personnel, or social workers. This condition occurs when a person reaches a point where they’re not able to empathize or care about others as much as they were before, due to being constantly exposed to other people’s distress. Some coin compassion fatigue as the “cost of caring” for others who are in pain – whether it’s emotional or psychological. People whose jobs are empathetic by nature are faced with this painful reality and numbness, not being able to express compassion the way they did before.
Despite your profession, we know that being a manager of any type of team can also come with the unpleasantness of compassion fatigue. Whenever you’re in a situation of holding others’ emotional weight, this could happen to you too. We’ve been grappling with concerns about recent racial injustices, helping colleagues cope with their mental health, isolation, and grief, along with just so many changes happening in our everyday lives. We know it can be a lot. But we’re here to tell you that you’re not alone, and this isn’t a forever thing.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
So how do you know if you’re experiencing compassion fatigue? Now, we first don’t want to confuse this with burnout. Burnout feels very similar to compassion fatigue but is caused by different things. Compassion fatigue is mainly caused by constant exposure to other people’s distress.
- Feelings of detachment, hopelessness, emotional numbness, and general anxiety
- Lack of empathy (this can also lead to a lack of motivation and feeling disconnected from others)
- Increased alcohol and drug abuse, as well as risk-taking behavior and aggression
- Decreased productivity and the ability to focus
How to Combat Compassion Fatigue
If you went through that list and found that you may be experiencing compassion fatigue, don’t think that you’re stranded without a life vest. We’ve compiled a short, but highly effective list of things you can incorporate into your day-to-day routine to begin to feel like yourself again.
- Practice self-care activities. This can include things you enjoy, such as reading your favorite book, exercising, healthy eating, or meditation.
- Find ways to (re)connect with your loved ones or friends. Seeking out those we enjoy being around can rebalance your emotional state and rebuild your emotional resilience.
- Recharge your battery. Take some quiet time to yourself to self-reflect and be in tune with the emotions you’re feeling in that moment.
- Commit to your “principles of practice.” Think about what gives your life joy and meaning, then prioritize those things in your everyday life. Use them as a compass if you feel yourself drifting away, to rediscover the things you find joy in.
If you find yourself plagued with compassion fatigue, don’t fret! This isn’t a permanent state, and you CAN feel like yourself again by focusing on the tips we mentioned earlier. We wanted to close by applauding you for the strength you’ve shown and know that you’re not alone in this. If we can all focus more on our mental health, we can be our very best selves to those who depend on us in our helping professions. We’re rooting for you — you’ve got this!