Compassion fatigue and burnout are very common in job roles that directly help others. You see it in doctors, nurses, and social workers. Empathy, compassion, and communication are strengths in these roles, and yet they are the very same strengths that can backfire on you. Compassion fatigue, essentially, means that you care so much and the horrible things that you are exposed to through other people start to get to you. There will not always be a happy ending. The pain and trauma that were experienced by those you are helping might be hard to deal with.
It is a very common issue for those in compassionate roles like social workers, from BSW social workers all the way to therapists who have completed their BSW to MSW programs. Understanding more about it, and also how you can work to avoid it in the future, can improve your work ethic and your quality of life.
Table of Contents
- What is Compassion Fatigue?
- What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout?
- How can you prevent compassion fatigue or burnout?
- How can you treat compassion fatigue?
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue has several names. It is also known as second-hand shock or a secondary stress reaction. It occurs when the people you are helping have badly suffered. Social workers commonly help those who have been traumatized in some way. Clinical social workers, or Licensed Clinical Social Workers, often work with those suffering from addiction and mental health disorders. It is not unheard of for overdoses or suicides to occur among your clients.
There are two reasons why these sorts of events are so traumatizing to the therapists and social workers themselves. Not only do you use empathy and compassion in order to connect with your patients, but it is your job to help them heal. It can feel like it was your fault, even though it was not.
Compassion fatigue is occasionally referred to as burnout, but due to the source of your stress, it often presents differently. For social workers, however, both are a risk.
What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout?
Compassion fatigue and burnout have physical symptoms, mental symptoms, emotional symptoms, and even spiritual symptoms. Commonly those with compassion fatigue experience a range of symptoms, including:
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Weight loss
- Irritability or quickness to anger
- Chronic exhaustion (physical or emotional)
- Feeling of inadequacy
- Feeling of self-contempt
Depersonalization, where you feel like you are outside of yourself, or that there is a distance between yourself and your feelings or actions, is one of the more serious symptoms of compassion fatigue. You may also start to dread going to work or feel like you are hitting a wall when it comes to treating a client.
Understanding the signs of compassion fatigue and burnout is the best way to counteract it. You may want to be on guard when treating clients who have suffered in ways similar to you in the past, for example. Therapists also often have difficulty in handling those who suffer from depression, or who were abused as a child. Providing therapy and services for those who have lost a loved one can also cause compassion fatigue.
This does not mean that you should not help them, just that you need to put self-care at the forefront of what you do. This applies throughout your career, even while completing your BSW to MSW programs to become an LCSW.
How can you prevent compassion fatigue or burnout?
Understanding compassion fatigue and burnout is something that everyone, including students completing their BSW to MSW programs, needs to do. Compassion fatigue is common, and assuming that your job will not affect you personally is a huge mistake. The best part about learning about compassion fatigue and how to prevent it, however, is that the same tools you use to help here can help you elsewhere. Dealing with stress on your BSW to MSW programs? These tips can help.
Understand the signs
From stress to compassion fatigue, it is important to understand the signs. It is also important to keep a note of the situations where you will start to feel this secondary stress, this can help you to quickly identify potentially problematic situations.
When completing BSW to MSW programs the time frame is given to you right from the start. You know when you can expect to be busier and more stressed and should take that into consideration when planning. Of course, when you are working, you do not get that luxury and may have a steadily increasing workload without realizing how stressed it is making you.
You may have one client that just makes you think differently, at any time. You may see too much of yourself or a loved one in them, and suddenly their case affects you so much more.
Of course, you can also be completing your BSW to MSW programs while working, and thus have the risk of needing to deal with both education stress and compassion fatigue at the same time.
That is why the signs as so important. Know the symptoms and try to keep track of how you feel so that you can notice them and when they start. This is the first step. By understanding what is happening to you, you can then work to protect yourself or start doing damage control.
Have a strong support system
A strong support system is essential, from when you are completing BSW to MSW programs all the way to when you are dealing with a particularly sad case at work. A support system is there for you. They are there for you to talk about how you feel and get it out into the open. They are also there to provide tactile assurance that can help ground you and calm you. Friends, family, and a significant partner are all great people to have as part of your support system.
Just remember that they are not just there as a soundbox. Let them distract you, make you laugh, and enjoy yourself. Helping others who are struggling does not mean you should ever allow yourself to feel bad for having a good day yourself. In fact, being able to smile and be positive can help give your clients the hope that they can as well.
All stress is exacerbated when your health is less than stellar. Your body is already worn down so if you add mental and emotional fatigue to the mix you are stirring up a storm. By living well, you can keep your body physically strong. Think of it as your fortress. A strong enough fortress can keep the howling winds and storms at bay. Sure, your walls may wear down, but so long as you have that strong foundation you can keep yourself safe.
Sleeping enough, eating healthy, and exercising are important when you are completing your BSW to MSW programs, and they are important when you finally get out there in the real world. If you can, try to prioritize your health. Only when you are at the top of your game can you give your clients the best possible service and care.
Meditation is another great way to keep track of how you feel and can help you manage your stress. It is very important to remember that meditation does not always look like sitting down and humming under your breath. Some might find a bath and soothing noises great. Others might need guided meditation. Some might enjoy journaling. The point is to take the time for some peace and space. Only when you give yourself that distance can you start to look inward.
Journaling in particular is a very useful form of meditation, as it helps you get all your feelings out there on the page, and most of all works to help you understand what you feel and even why.
Again this is all something that you can practice while completing your BSW to MSW programs so that you have good healthy habits by the time you need to rely on them.
Many of those who work in high-demand jobs like social work benefit immensely from seeking out their own therapy. It is hard helping those who have seen the worst that life has to offer and knowing that even if you do your absolute best you may not actually be able to help them. Sometimes people do not accept your help. They may relapse. There are so many situations where you will not be able to stop them from being in pain or making poor choices. You will not be able to protect them from their pain. Feeling like a failure or disassociating is very common, but you do not deserve it. By working things out with your own therapist, you can get better and help your clients in turn.
How can you treat compassion fatigue?
There are several ways that you can treat compassion fatigue after you feel it.
Therapy and support networks
It is normal for therapists to have their own therapist. It is perfectly acceptable to rely on your support network. Just because you have completed a BSW to MSW online degree and are at the height of your career does not mean that you do not need support yourself. Knowing and even being able to self-diagnose yourself is not enough to help you feel better. We are social creatures, and you also deserve to rely on therapy and support networks to cope with what you see and hear about on your job.
Where you find this support can be almost everywhere: from the alumni network on your BSW to MSW online degree; from your coworkers; from your friends and family; even grief therapy groups and other specialty support groups. Explore your options to find the right network for you.
Improving your health
Living well is an important preventive measure, so it stands to reason that if you are experiencing compassion fatigue or the signs of burnout then improving your health is a decent place to start getting out of your rut. Consider taking a few days off from your work to have a holiday – to relax, to start eating better, and to otherwise put effort into your health and wellbeing. Take the time to prep a bit as well, so that when you go back to work you have a few easy ways to continue staying healthy, like prepping your meals.
Staying focussed with your goals
Your goals are also going to help you avoid or get out of compassion fatigue. If you are currently working and completing a BSW to MSW online degree, for example, then you may find you are more susceptible to either burnout or compassion fatigue. By keeping your eye on the goal (such as graduation) you can work through it. After all, a BSW to MSW online degree while working is no walk in the park, so by keeping focused on your goal and using the rest of the aforementioned tips, you can better get through it.
The goals you set for yourself do not have to be as obvious as graduating from a BSW to MSW online degree, either. You can set short-term goals for yourself as well. Say you want to work at this one clinic for a year at least to build up your experience. That is a simple enough goal that can help you keep focused throughout your stress.
Understanding your limits
We all have limits. If you find that, despite how much you really, really want to help abuse or rape survivors, that you cannot do it and stay well at the same time, then it is important to stop. The beautiful thing about social work is that it is so encompassing. You can and will find a great role that you can handle personally and thrive in. If helping those with mental illness is too much, then you can take a step back into policy-making or administration. In these roles, you can help those with mental illnesses on a grander scale, rather than on a case-by-case basis.
You have a lot of options when you pursue a BSW to MSW online degree. These options can take you to almost every sector and around the country. There is a lot of freedom in that, so if you start to feel trapped and are consistently battling off compassion fatigue and even anxiety, then it is time to rethink how you can help.
Finding that position that allows you to feel fulfilled and helpful, while also being good for your mental and physical health, is the perfect place for you.