Compassion fatigue. It's known as "the cost of caring"—the combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with supporting people in distress. And it affects a growing number of health care providers in Canada, including community services workers (CSWs).
CSWs strive on behalf of others. They dedicate the majority of their energy and empathy to people who are struggling—with addiction, mental health issues, homelessness, domestic abuse, and a host of other challenges.
And while the work CSWs do is so often rewarding and inspiring, there are inevitable setbacks, disappointments, and losses. It can be particularly difficult to witness clients go through difficult times, or fail to follow a program or treatment plan. At times you may feel frustrated by the social services "system", bureaucratic red tape, or rules you can't change.
Stress and fatigue are common parts of most professions, but because your career aligns so closely with human needs and social justice, you're likely to feel it more.
Understanding the signs of compassion fatigue, and the importance of self-care, is key to a long-lasting and truly fulfilling career in community services. These facts and tips are a great place to start.
10 Signs of compassion fatigue CSWs should not ignore
Compassion fatigue is the combination of several stressors: exposure to first-hand accounts of traumatic experiences, overwork, and a general feeling of "burnout."
How is compassion fatigue different from normal fatigue? Normal fatigue is temporary, and can usually be improved with a weekend of rest and relaxation. Compassion fatigue is far more intense, persistent, and hard to shake. These are 10 warning signs CSWs should watch for:
- reduced feelings of empathy and compassion for those you serve (a sort of growing numbness)
- desire to avoid work or caring for others in general
- persistent feelings of irritability, anxiety, and anger
- feelings of hopelessness
- trouble sleeping
- difficulty making decisions
- problems in personal relationships outside of work
- unusual weight loss/gain
- seeking to reduce stress with alcohol or other legal/illegal substances
Because compassion fatigue impairs decision-making and reduces empathy, working under its influence can have serious ethical and legal implications for CSWs. Community services workers are supposed to uphold the social workers' code of conduct and core values, which focuses on sound decision-making, professional integrity, and respect for clients.
In order to live by those values, CSWs must first take care of themselves. It may not be possible to eliminate sources of stress at work, but it is definitely possible to use self-care methods to reduce the personal and professional impact of that stress.
Examples of Self-care for Community Services Workers
Students in community services worker training learn a lot about psychology, addiction, mental health, counselling and interviewing, and how to work with local social service providers. Quality programs also include coursework on self-care—but this varies by school. And not all work environments promote self-care programs or strategies for their CSWs.
In many cases, it's up to CSWs to apply self-care strategies on their own, and to collaborate with colleagues to develop mutual support systems.
Social worker and award-winning author on compassion fatigue, SaraKay Smullens, has this to say about the process:
"By engaging in self-care, we can assert our right to be well and reintroduce our own needs into the equation. Hearing this call may be a difficult first step, as social workers might feel guilt about needing to take care of ourselves..."
These are some examples of self-care CSWs can use to reclaim their right to wellness, and help prevent compassion fatigue:
- taking vacations and mental health days when symptoms of fatigue appear (instead of powering through because "you can't spare the time")
- regularly practicing a proven relaxation technique, such as yoga, meditation, reiki, or tai chi (preferably in a group class for mutual support)
- talking with a trusted mentor or colleague about sources of stress; getting support from friends at work
- building regular exercise into your weekly schedule
- scheduling massages/bodywork appointments at least once a month
- seeking counselling when the above techniques don't feel like "enough"
Compassion fatigue specialist, Lisa Wessan, reminds us that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for stress relief. It is key for CSWs to try various approaches and find what works best for them as individuals. After all, you can't protect, guide, and support others without doing so first for yourself. And developing your own personalized self-care routine could mean the difference between a sucessful career, and being forced to leave social work altogether.
"You can take certain steps to prevent compassion fatigue, and enjoy a long, rich career as a social worker. Water the root, enjoy the fruit... you are a worthy social worker!"
Consider Herzing College's Community Services Worker Training, delivered at several campus locations, including Toronto. Fill out the form at the top right of this page for fast, free information. Or click below to explore the program.