The Carer’s Perspective – Compassion Fatigue and What it Is

Linda Sage
Stress
By Sophie Gannon

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Caring for others as a profession can be draining, both physically and mentally. Compassion fatigue, often generalised with the typical stress of an occupation, is where the mental health of carers is negatively affected by their work. Both those that work in that industry and those that don’t can be affected by it – so this includes family members that are informally taking care of their relatives.

This condition can usually be seen in several job sectors and to name a few, can apply those that nurse, teach, or conduct therapy – commonly industries that look after other people. Those that suffer compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress (STS), have to deal with many symptoms that can affect day-to-day life.

So, what are the symptoms?

Looking after others is always a big responsibility – but managing your life along with that is a much bigger one. These huge responsibilities can stir a lot of stress in carers and even a sense of hopelessness and pessimism in that what they are doing may feel futile, especially if they’re working with someone who has a chronic illness.

Their work may suddenly feel like it yields less accomplishment and they may start to question their professionality and competency. Their self-esteem can fall into jeopardy which impacts their lives massively, especially when working with patients who may not be able to recognize how much they do for them.

Getting away from work makes no difference, either. Victims of STS often find themselves unable to enjoy leisure activities as much as they used to and are thus unable to relieve the compassion fatigue they’ve accumulated. Their thoughts might not be able to leave their work life, and this applies especially to informal workers who live with the family members they care for as they are likely to be in constant contact with them.

Work life then bleeds into real life, and caregivers might not be able to help constantly being anxious and stressing about their client – the activities they need to complete, the welfare of their patient, and perhaps even the consequences if they don’t fulfil certain needs. They may not be able to ever truly ‘switch off’.

And this can then cause insomnia, inducing many sleepless nights which may not be limited to just lying awake. All this stress and responsibility, coupled with their fears, can cause nightmares which means even if they manage any sleep at all, it’s not a good night’s sleep. They may awaken more on edge than usual and feel physically drained, which isn’t good for the rest of the day.

What can be done about it?

From a personal standpoint and what I’ve observed, compassion fatigue is exhausting. It isn’t an easy condition to work with, especially when your work load is so big and demanding and if you’re a person of deep empathy.

For those going into a caring profession, courses should now be offering training so that students will be able to deal with these issues when they arrive.

Practicing self-care is also incredibly important for those in this industry, as well as accepting that not everything can be achieved. Those with compassion fatigue can develop apathy and may even forget or not want to look after themselves.

Then, of course, there’s therapy for those that seek support. Those that aren’t able to help themselves or don’t know how can seek the advice of psychological experts.

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