Providing mental health services or working on maximizing personal and professional potential can be very rewarding, but it can also be emotionally and physically demanding. Over time, burnout can develop due to the unremitting psychological stress of being exposed to emotionally draining situations and the inability to get appropriate rest.
I started working with HIV/AIDS patients and professionals at AIDS Project Los Angeles in 1992. I was curious about the most effective strategies for helping them with their ongoing emotional challenges. So, in 1997, I published a doctoral dissertation on “Burnout Prevention in Healthcare Providers.”
Burnout and spirituality were the themes of my literature review. I hypothesized that spirituality and mindfulness strategies could be beneficial to healthcare providers. I devised a survey to assess self-perceived spirituality and correlated it with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (“MBI”), which measures feelings of being emotionally overworked and exhausted by one’s job.
Unfortunately, I was unable to prove my hypothesis. Health care practitioners who considered themselves spiritual and engaged in spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, and rituals were still extremely burnt out at work. This did not stop me from giving seminars on burnout prevention worldwide and sharing some mindfulness and resilience practices.
COVID-19 presented me and several of my colleagues with a similar experience of being exhausted by our work and having difficulty staying focused. Paying attention to the language used by clients, coaches, and supervisors, I kept hearing people talk about compassion fatigue, which has a very similar meaning to what I discussed in my literature review on burnout.
The difference between the two concepts is that burnout is characterized by emotional fatigue and withdrawal due to excessive workload and institutional stress, whereas compassion fatigue is triggered by personal and professional experiences in all the groups we belong and affects all aspects of our lives.
Compassion fatigue, also known as “secondary traumatization,” is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others. It is frequently referred to as the “negative cost of caring.” This experience goes beyond work, the caring could be for family members or friends.
People who experience compassion fatigue may exhibit a variety of symptoms, including:
Personal self-care: Take good care of your body, mind, and soul. Take a break from work, get enough sleep, eat well, practice breathing exercises and mindfulness, work out and participate in other recreational activities to manage your stress.
Social self-care: Find social and emotional support—in other words, talk to someone. Nurture your relationships and set clear professional boundaries.
Professional help: You can seek professional counseling to help overcome unpleasant thoughts and emotions and/or focus on healthy coping mechanisms through coaching and supervision.
Compassion fatigue can cause feelings of guilt for lack of empathy. Understanding how this happens to us and how we can control our thoughts and emotions in these trying times is essential to maintain healthy relationships and deliver the best services to our clients.
Compassion Fatigue Self-test
Definitions and TED Talk