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  • Writer's pictureChrysanthi Sophia Karampetsi

Running out of Compassion: Compassion Fatigue at Work

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

Compassion is vital for humanity. Imagine living in a world that no one cares or shows any kindness and willingness to help others. How does that make you feel? Probably, it is hard to imagine such a cruel word, right? Now, how does it feel when someone does something that makes you feel better? I guess you feel happy that you came across this person.

Caring and offering support to others is a powerful way for personal and professional growth and lasting happiness and fulfillment. When someone is concerned about someone else and provides help, it is not only good for the recipient of help, but also for the society as a whole. However, for workplaces the things are different. Workplaces are often considered as hard, cold places, focusing on numbers and not on people. Although it is expected from every employee in any kind of helping profession, to listen intently, to empathize with others' feelings and emotions, and take action, this is not always the case. Demonstrating too much empathy can be exhausting. Sometimes, you hit the limits to care for someone else all the time.

Compassion fatigue, the natural physical and emotional exhaustion of empathizing for long periods of time or the stress that occurs as a result of wanting to help others, is really common in modern workplaces. Constantly empathizing with the stressed-out individuals can lead to adopt these behaviors. Compassion fatigue can affect the people in the health sector, support agents in customer service positions, team leaders and managers that help their agents overcome their emotional state after dealing with stressful customers. When compassion fatigue is left unnoticed, it can increase cynicism at work, lead to a loss of enjoyment of career development, and it can be transformed to burn out, anxiety disorder, traumatic stress or suicidal thoughts. These symptoms can be disastrous for the customers, the employees and the company in general.

How can we overcome compassion fatigue at work?

  1. Normalizing the problem

Spending eight hours a day listening to frustrated customers and trying to meet their expectations is tough. Sometimes you might feel that you want to burst into tears or start self-doubting. The problem is that everyone tries to repress these discomfiting feelings, however, it is a great relief for employees to hear that those feelings, and behaviors are quite common and that many employees struggle with the exact same things. It is just that no one talks openly about these uncomfortable behaviors at the workplace. When leaders advice to “put the customer first” without the necessary support leads to apathy rather than empathy. An open, transparent and honest line of communication is the key for employees to perform their jobs well and minimize stress. If leaders and their teams, openly discussing and recognizing compassion fatigue in the workplace, they can actually normalize the problem. Together they can work towards developing a supportive work environment that will encourage proper debriefing from maladaptive thoughts. Teams need to build a foundation for positive change and leaders need to help them see that uncomfortable thoughts and behaviors are not accurate representations of who they are and how they define themselves. They need to understand that our brain has a natural inclination to focus on intrusive thoughts, however, it is up to them to overcome their daily struggles. In terms of compassion fatigue, teams and leaders need to come up with ideas to safely overcome overwhelming feelings as they could dissuade them from attempting to overcome the obstacles. Regular breaks, mental health days, peer support, changing the way work is done, and regular check-in times where everyone can safely discuss the impact of the work on their emotional lives are few of the examples that can be introduced to employees dealing with compassion fatigue.

2. Find Coping strategies

While it may be tempting to wash away the compassion fatigue and emotional burdens of your job with sick leave or drugs, this can actually work in the reverse and compound compassion fatigue in the long run. When coping with compassion fatigue, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to even begin. Overcoming compassion fatigue is a process. What works best for someone, might not work for you. There are several strategies that employees use for coping with compassion fatigue, and each type of coping strategy brings unique benefits. Finding the best match of strategies for your situation is the key to maximizing good results. Consider making a list of positive coping strategies to use in times of stress. This might include deep breathing, meditation, taking a walk, having breaks outside, talking with a colleague, focus on positive quotes and images, participating in support groups and open discussions about compassion, set limits and learn to say no to requests that would create excessive stress, having a massage, pray, switching to part-time work or changing jobs.

3. Discussions with new and experienced employees

Younger, less experienced professionals are more prone to compassion fatigue. Creating group discussions with new and experienced agents might be a beneficial method. Groups can provide many things, such as support, acceptance, mutual nurturing, and caring. Employees can share once a week challenging situations from their week. These information sharing sessions can undoubtedly help newer agents. The swapping of experiences and peer recognition helps teammates feel supported and not alone in their daily empathy marathons.

4. Empowering employees

High levels of empathy and emotion control are imperative for someone working directly with customers. Empower employees who self-identify as stressed and suffer from compassion fatigue with the freedom to self-soothe, as it the is key to combat the drain on empathy. Encouragement is especially important to employees who might be afraid that taking breaks or days off might look like weakness. Self-care, taking a break and doing something nice for yourself, is imperative, especially when we constantly focus on how to take care of others. Employees need to know that they do not have to do anything alone. If they are having trouble caring for themselves, they need to reach out to their supportive network or take a break. Empowering employees means equipping them with the tools and methods, which will help them get through the day at work.

5. Develop and utilize self-awareness

Effectively addressing compassion fatigue requires us to be tuned into our own experiences and to be self-aware. Noticing thoughts and feelings and our general stress level throughout the day is a powerful tool for detecting when we might need to pay more attention to ourselves. Self-awareness can be developed through journaling, reading, discussion with others, support activities, counseling, awareness exercises, spiritual activities or meditation. Cultivating self-awareness may seem tough work, but it can help us navigate the cost of this work.

“I had never been told that empathy is a finite resource. You can run out. As a normal, psychological response, you cannot give of yourself again and again and again without replenishing.”

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