Dealing with compassion fatigue and burnout

Sep 9, 2019, 11:29 PM | Updated: Sep 10, 2019, 5:35 am

SALT LAKE CITY – Psychiatrists and other counselors say compassion fatigue is a common problem among nurses, first responders and doctors, but, can it be a sign of a much bigger problem?

To be honest, the reason why I pitched this story to my editors is because I misunderstood what compassion fatigue was.  I thought it was just when one person loses compassion or empathy for others.  I was wrong about that.  Counselors say what I was thinking of sounds more like “burnout.”  Doctor Karen Checketts says the symptoms can seem very similar, but there is a difference.

“The difference between the two is having that secondary trauma vs. not.  So, you can be burnt out and a lot of the symptoms are very overlapping, for sure,” Checketts says.

Secondary trauma is common among anyone who helps other people deal with traumatic events.  Frequently, these people take on the emotional weight of others for so long that they eventually don’t have any more support left to give.  Checketts believes most people have some sort of secondary trauma in their lives.

And… to be even more honest… I pitched this story because I thought something was wrong with me.  I find myself not caring about the problems of others, and I think I used to be a very compassionate person.  I really noticed this lack of empathy after both of my parents passed away within the last year.

I told Checketts, “My sisters were talking about how much they were missing our parents, and things like that, and I just wasn’t.  I was like, ‘Is something wrong?  Am I broken inside?’  I used to care, and now I kind of don’t.”  Checketts responded, “I think part of it is that you haven’t learned how to care [for others] and also take care of yourself.  That’s common in compassion fatigue.”

Checketts says there is a long line of symptoms that could be a sign of this kind of problem.  They include lack of desire to exercise, absenteeism at work, being more cynical, anger toward your supervisor and less connection to your spiritual beliefs.

Plus, it could lead to other problems.

“I think that if you don’t treat compassion fatigue you’re going to get more lonely.  You become more predisposed to depression and anxiety,” she says.

Also, it isn’t just the person that has burnout or compassion fatigue that feels the negative impacts.  Child psychologist, Dr. Douglas Goldsmith, says it can seriously impact a person’s relationship with their family.

“We talk to families in therapy all the time where they will say, ‘We have some parents coming home in a bad mood, and we’re starting to avoid them,” he says.

However, there are ways people can build up a resiliency to compassion fatigue.  Goldsmith says therapy and meditation work well, and, if it’s the job that’s dragging you down, it may be time to consider leaving.

“If it has become day-to-day, humdrum stuff and I’m angry about it, I need to find a way out of that.  It can be through new education, new learning, new responsibilities, more responsibilities or, in many cases, less responsibilities,” according to Goldsmith.

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Dealing with compassion fatigue and burnout