Understanding the feelings of another – empathy – can be a super-power. It can promote social connection and allow us to help others even when we don’t have all the answers. The catch is, being good at being empathic or doing it often can also be a super-stressor.
Caregivers and healthcare professionals have long been aware of the occupational hazard that empathy can pose (being empathic is critical in these roles). In fact, the literature has a name for the pointy end of this problem – “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue refers to symptoms such as tiredness, depression, anxiety and/or loss of morale; difficulty caring, detachment, or numbness; and physical and emotional exhaustion. These symptoms occur in the context of helping others who are suffering. Compassion fatigue symptoms seem to be a way our brain and body take a step back, to try to protect us against overload. If it sounds familiar to burnout, that’s probably because they are close cousins.
But caregivers and health professionals aren’t the only ones who support people in crises and risk experiencing these unpleasant side-effects. The past two years have been uniquely challenging. Staff working in call centres describe fielding growing volumes of phone calls from distressed individuals in dire situations. Team leaders and HR staff share stories of the challenges of regularly supporting staff who are struggling due to personal circumstances in a world with limited mental-health resources. And, not only are we exposed to stories about pain and suffering at work, but we also hear a large volume of them outside of work, amongst family and friends or when we check out local and global news coverage.
So how can we put this super-power to good use and remain empathic towards others, while ensuring we protect ourselves? Personal strategies include:
If we are used to putting the needs of others before our own, we might forget to check in with ourselves. Checking in with ourselves regularly and acknowledging how we are feeling (without judgment) is a powerful tool. Spotting when we are experiencing more unpleasant emotions or feeling particularly tired puts us in a better position to be able to do something about it sooner rather than later and replenish our energy.
In our society, over-working and achievement are applauded. We often internalise unhelpful beliefs and become our own biggest barriers to practising self-care. It’s not uncommon for people who help others to describe feeling lazy or selfish when it comes to allocating time to look after themselves. However, taking time to watch a movie, exercise, or read can replenish our energy, which in turn enables us to care for others. If this is an area of difficulty for you, you might start with small moments of putting yourself first or caring for yourself the way you would a friend, and increase this in increments.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s not all bad. Compassion satisfaction is the pleasure we get from helping others and contributing to their wellbeing. Importantly, compassion satisfaction has been found to alleviate the negative effects of compassion fatigue and burnout. Focusing on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative can help us to hold on to happiness and satisfaction in our work and provide a sense of fulfilment that helps us to carry on. This could look like adjusting our expectations and recognising that we can’t help everyone, reviewing successes of the day, focusing on smaller positive changes, and savouring words of appreciation from customers and colleagues.
Connecting to others is one of the most powerful things we can do. Ideally, our work environment involves regular chances to speak to colleagues and support one another. If we are working remotely, then we might need to go out of our way to call or videochat our colleagues so that we still have much-needed opportunities to share our experiences and the stories of our customers and clients and gain perspective. Outside of the workplace, talking about feelings with a trusted friend or professional can help.
While part of your job might involve listening to others vent about their problems, in order to understand and respond effectively, there are limits to this. Some people may feel like they’re being used as an emotional punching bag. We can consider and enforce our boundaries at work (i.e., sensitively ending difficult calls when we have provided the appropriate assistance; getting a team of people involved in providing support) and at home (i.e., gently letting loved ones know when we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to speak about their difficulties after work). Speaking with colleagues, your team leader, and checking policies for managing different situations can help to become more comfortable with boundary setting.
Individuals in helping roles face unique stressors in their workplace, but there are ways to handle these challenges. In addition to working in a healthy organisation (because compassion fatigue isn’t just the responsibility of an individual), prioritising our own wellbeing may help us to continue to do this important work. If you’re concerned that you may be developing compassion fatigue and you’ve tried the above, it’s important to speak to someone and ask for support.