Compassion Fatigue: It Happens to Everyone, So How Can We Bounce Back?

Compassion Fatigue was first defined in a way that mostly applied to medical and mental health professionals who care for sick and traumatized people. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines compassion fatigue as: “the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.”

What we have learned in the nearly 30 years since the term was first coined is that people in any helping profession including those in volunteer roles can experience compassion fatigue. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project defines it more generally, “Compassion fatigue is a broadly defined concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic it is important to be especially alert for the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, as many people are experiencing additional stress on top of their already draining work and life schedules. The pandemic has added pressure to caregivers who may have already been struggling.

Early childhood professionals are at risk for developing compassion fatigue due to the demanding nature of their everyday work, which is now paired with the stress caused by the pandemic.

Not only are early childhood professionals affected in their own lives by the threat of COVID, but they also must care for children and families experiencing a wide range of effects, such as lost jobs, unstable housing, or isolation from family and friends.

How do you know if what you are experiencing is normal stress or compassion fatigue?

CrisisPrevention.com lists some common signs of compassion fatigue.

As a result of your caregiving role, are you experiencing:

  • Feelings of failure, guilt, self-doubt, sadness, and powerlessness 
  • Loss of sleep 
  • Reduced sense of efficacy on the job 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed by obligations
  • Apathy and emotional numbness 
  • Secretive addictions or self-medicating in a variety of ways 
  • Isolation and withdrawal 
  • Exhaustion 
  • Intrusion symptoms in thoughts, dreams, or nightmares 
  • Bottled-up emotions 
  • Pessimism 

What to do if a coworker or someone you care about is experiencing these symptoms

  • Tell the person you are concerned about what you are noticing. Use “I” statements, ask open-ended questions, and express your willingness to talk. Say things like, “I noticed that you seem down lately, what’s been going on?” or “I noticed that you have been taking more breaks than you usually do. How are you feeling?”
  • Avoid accusations and assumptions. Try to find neutral ground that will not make the other person feel defensive.
  • Ask the person what has worked well in the past to get through difficult times. Encourage them to create a list of strategies that have worked for them, then try some of those.
  • If they cannot think of any strategies or need suggestions, the wellness suggestions in the section below may help.
  • If you are not close with the other person and/or feel uncomfortable approaching them, then talk with your supervisor, a coworker, or someone you know who is close with them. Avoid gossip or speculation; simply express your concerns, and ask if the third party would be willing to help the person who is struggling.
  • If you think the person might be at risk of harming or killing themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741. They can talk you through ways to help.

What to do if you are experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue

The Wellness Wheel image is from The University of New Hampshire.
The Wellness Wheel image is from The University of New Hampshire.
  • Consider different aspects of wellness and think about one thing you can do each day to support your wellness in that area
  • Make time to safely interact with people who listen and help you feel heard, call them on the phone, video chat, or have a socially distanced chat on the driveway.
  • “Take Ten” – this is ten minutes each day that is consciously about only you. Do something healing and calm that is just for you. Practice mindfulness, pray, take a walk, talk with a friend, color, read a book, or anything else that replenishes your energy.
  • Avoid environments, whether online or in life, that make you feel less-than, frustrated, overwhelmed, or hurt.
  • Social media can offer a negative or a positive environment, depending on how and when it is used. Think about how you are feeling before you log on to social media, then assess how you feel after. Are you feeling more negative emotions? Are you feeling like you are not enough, that you should be trying harder? Or are you feeling more connected to people you care about? Are you feeling inspired and encouraged by what you saw or heard?
  • Set one small goal that makes you feel accomplished without adding undue burden to your already difficult schedule. Read a book to your child, eat a meal outside, do one load of laundry, send a card to a family member. When you have completed the goal, give yourself a pat on the back and allow yourself the satisfaction of knowing that you completed something meaningful, even if other things are not going exactly as planned.
  • Think of all the priorities and activities in your life as balls you are juggling. When you are juggling so many balls, there are going to be moments when some are dropped but remember: not all the balls are made of glass. Some of the balls are made of rubber and will bounce back if dropped. It is up to you, your family, and your employer to work together to decide which priorities in your life and work cannot be dropped, and which ones will bounce back, unscathed, if put off or dropped all together. When feeling overwhelmed with tasks, make a list of priorities and see if there are things that you are currently juggling that can be set down or given to someone else in order to lighten your load.

Remember that you are not alone; many people are experiencing similar feelings right now as everyone is navigating this new environment. Early childhood professionals have many responsibilities that can at times be stressful or overwhelming. Taking time for yourself is not selfish. It can help you stay well in a way that will allow you to continue to work with children and families in a patient, productive, and healthy way.

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Read more self-care tips for early childhood professionals

Nebraska Children and Families Foundation supports children, young adults and families at risk with the overall goal of giving our state's most vulnerable kids what they need to reach their full potential. We do this by building strong communities that support families so their children can grow up to be thriving, productive adults.

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