I am finally getting around to writing on the topic of ‘Compassion Fatigue’, in which I am so passionate about, and it feels both exciting, and humbling. My organisation namely Compassion Fatigue Ireland has taken off at a rapid pace, which is something I was not expecting. I researched this topic over the space of an academic year and wrote a thesis on it, which is where all this has stemmed from. Continuing to work as a social care practitioner for several years following graduation, led me to researching higher levels of burnout and compassion fatigue than ever, perhaps due to now having more awareness. Organisations and colleges began seeking more information on burnout and seeking my attendance for public speaking sessions and training on this topic. The natural next step was to become a self-employed full-time trainer developing and delivering much needed training packages and CPD (Continuous Professional Development) events throughout Ireland. This process has evolved in a positive manner to me becoming a full-time trainer/tutor and educator in many areas of social care, health care and education.
So, here’s my stance on it all so far….
Well-being is talked about a lot, right? It’s a very present topic and every time we click onto social media we will ultimately see something new in this field. That is all great, and the more of it that comes on stream, the better. But here’s my point. In relation to all the conversations we are having on mental health/illness, there is so much emphasis on fundraising events, and sharing the messages online, which again are great, but I really feel that society really needs to strip this back and begin supporting our family and friends we come face to face with. Telling somebody who is in one of their darkest days of depression that exercise and a healthy diet will help them, does not help them! Number 1: their energy levels are probably so low that these well-being ideas are the least of their worries at that moment. Number 2: there is a strong chance that they do not want to leave the house, so again, stripping it right back helps, by essentially bringing that nutritious food and offering to go for a stroll with them in the fresh air, literally taking it step by step, and in that moment, listen, if all you hear is silence… keep listening!
I knew as soon as I started writing, in preparation for my first book, that I would not be able to stop, and there was always a strong chance that I would go off on tangents, but it is all relevant, trust me! And those of you who know me, know I am never short of a few words. Okay so, my point above on how society is approaching mental illness, and how I feel that we will keep going around in circles if we don’t start asking each other face to face how we are, and I mean asking somebody how they really are, instead of the usual passive ‘how are you’, when we don’t usually wait for the answer. I feel organisations need to start using a similar approach with staff, by essentially stripping back their approach and start by implementing staff well-being as an absolute necessity. Because, with my example above on an individual who is struggling with depression and now does not have the energy to leave the house, which may have been different if somebody had actually asked them how they were weeks before this and showed some support. Well the same applies to that social care worker, social worker, carer, first responder, doctor, nurse or teacher who is burned out. Is too late? Yes of course they can recover but why wait until they are burned out to make a change?
The caring sector and many other sectors who work on the front line with people, has so many talented, empathetic, driven caring professionals who are all in the field to make a difference in people’s lives. We all train to a high level on what we need to look out for in others, how to implement life skills, and create interventions and care plans around people we work with. We encourage these individuals to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. But are we doing that in the full of our own health? If not, I sniff some irony! Emotional attachment is something that can cause a lot of problems. I won’t go into emotional attachment, in terms of the psychological concept, instead looking at it from a worker and service user point of view. Of course, some emotional attachment has its place but what happens when the connection gets too deep that there is now a co-dependency issue where the staff member and the service user almost rely on each other from day to day in many ways. The service user will be happy to have the staff member around supporting them and to feel the connection but that staff member will judge their work ability on how the service user is doing, and this will, in turn impact that staff members moods and focus, and here is where it all spirals out of control, staff members gets tunnel vision following connection with the service user and all else around them suffers, including themselves and their loved ones.
At this stage, that valued, loving, dedicated member of staff is burned out. Why? Because there was no awareness on self-care tools. Because they taught the right way to do the job was to put every hour possible into interventions, to work every hour required, to skip lunch in order to meet the needs of the service users and organisations, to be the listening ear for the rest of the team and to help the team out by doing as much as possible for them, and in turn letting their own family members suffer by not being present constantly. The word constantly is very relevant here as it refers to somebody who is there in body but not in mind, usually due to the fact that their mind is just too busy, distracted or disconnected to have the ability to listen to what you are saying. We have all been in the presence of individuals who’s mind is clearly elsewhere during a conversation. This is the mind of somebody who is burned out, distracted, busy, anxious, exhausted and chances are, they are thinking about work and their service users. They are wondering if the intervention they created worked, they are wandering if the service user is okay and if the crisis passed following their shift. They possibly cannot sleep due to racing thoughts of what is going to happen next and if they have done enough.
Why did it get this far? Again, referring to the example above of somebody suffering from depression and not wanting to leave the house. When staff members become burned out and end up out on sick certs, this is not the time to consider training in self-care as the individual who is burned out may not have the energy to even attend this training, or have the ability to focus on material and take time away from their case load, which in turn will ultimately add to their stress level. There is a strong chance that this individual who is burned out now has a very negative mindset anyways and won’t see the value in this training and will instead resent the organisation for putting it on too late. This negative mindset is unfortunately contagious in staff teams and can create a very toxic environment. We have all been around people who would give a headache to a disprin and always have a problem for every solution! This behavior is addictive if you are in the same mindset, and that’s where the toxicity kicks in, and it would not have got this far if the right toolkit and support had been put in place initially.
In the caring profession we all must carry out a certain amount of training and rightly so, as it all has its place. But why is there not a Health and Safety aspect considered in how staff themselves are? Is that not one of the most important questions that should be asked and assessed? When somebody is recruited as a front line worker the first question that should be asked is do they have the correct toolkit to equip them for the potential trauma they will be exposed to. Resilience needs to be built up regularly in the hope that staff do not end up burned out, on sick leave, eventually leave the field and feel like it was a job they could not cope with. If staff were equipped and trained from the beginning instead of leaving it too late, they could have potentially coped, because when it is too late they have what is called ‘Compassion Fatigue’. They become empty of compassion due to providing empathy to others and forgetting about their own mental and physical needs, and they feel so let down because they entered this workforce to help people who need assistance of some form.
The initial hopes of entering this line of work was the hope of gaining compassion satisfaction which is the feeling of satisfaction that caring people get when they help others.
Should providing compassion towards others mean sacrificing your own well-being?