Compassion fatigue

My supervisor/colleague/mentor sent me an article on the social work sector that really made me think today. This part really resonated with me, although my work is comparatively mild as compared to other sectors when it comes to a ‘thankless’ job. A new term to reflect on: Compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is perhaps the most general term of the three and describes “the overall experience of emotional and physical fatigue that social service professionals experience due to chronic use of empathy when treating patients who are suffering in some way” (Newell & MacNeil, 2010). There is evidence that compassion fatigue increases when a social worker sees that a client is not “getting better” (Corcoran, 1987). Yet, a large part of compassion fatigue is built directly into the fabric of the kind of work we do.

Although we may strive for a relationship with our clients that is collaborative, our goal is not a relationship that is reciprocal. In many important ways, reciprocity is unethical, even illegal. Although recognizing this fact can lead to an important setting of boundaries, including financial boundaries (charging clients, collecting co-pays), or deciding how missed appointments are handled, compassion fatigue may reflect a deeper “inability to say no,” one of the hazards that “can exacerbate the difficult nature of the work” (Skovholt, Grier, & Hanson, 2001).

In our work, although we are surrounded by people all day long, there is not a balanced give and take. Concentration is on clients, not ourselves. In the truest sense, we are alone—we are the givers, and our fulfillment comes from seeing the growth, hope, and new direction in those with whom we are privileged to work. The fulfillment of our professional commitment demands that we ever do our best and give as much as possible in the ethical ways that are the underpinnings of the social work profession. With this awareness, common sense predicts that burnout is a potential threat waiting for us in the wings.

However, as we all know, common sense and clear thinking can be eroded when our own unfinished emotional business propels us. Although there are many therapists who describe fulfilling childhoods that are secure and stable, research indicates that the majority who come into our field have known profound pain and loss during their formative years (Elliott & Guy, 1993). Most have experienced one or a combination of five patterns of emotional abuse, which has led to the relentless need to give to others what we wish we had received, coupled by an inability to care for oneself and set limits in order to counteract exhaustion (Smullens, 2010). Social workers, therefore, are especially prone to compassion fatigue, not only because of the nature of our work, but often because our own natures have inspired us to enter this precise field.

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