, , ,

Signs You’re a Compassion Fatigued Leader — and 10 Tips for Recovery

Are you emotionally and physically exhausted? Do you no longer feel a sense of personal accomplishment in your work?  Have you become more disconnected from your co-worker?

Over the last 2 years, the emotional impacts of the pandemic and the exodus of workers in what has been called the Great Reshuffle, has taken a major toll on many leaders.  Last year, nearly 48 million U.S. workers left their jobs. Additionally, the “hidden resignation”—doing the bear minimum to keep your job—is another negative consequence. With the remnants of a global crisis almost behind us, now is the time we prepare for its aftermath—compassion fatigued leadership.  So, what are the tell tale signs you have compassion fatigue?

What is Compassion Fatigue?

“Compassion fatigue” is a term first coined in 1992 by historian Carla Joinson, who studied its impact on nurses.  Compassion fatigue refers to the impact of exposure to the stressful and traumatic experiences of others we care for in our daily lives. It is also called secondary traumatization. Helping professionals are the most vulnerable to the condition.

Why Should I Care?

This experience of collective suffering, as a result of the pandemic, has touched the lives of millions in the workforce. A research study on compassion fatigue during the COVID- 19 pandemic found that many nurses reported experiencing increased levels of the condition. Another study found that women reported compassion fatigue and burnout more often than men.  No one is immune to the struggle. In fact, it should be expected given how this global crisis has impacted our professional and personal quality of life.  

Organizations should care deeply about preventing compassion fatigue. Because leaders will need to continue to help their employees navigate these uncertain times and offer support to them, they must be emotionally well enough to do so.

Do I Have Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?

Compassion fatigue and burnout are not one in the same, but they can coexist.  Some common signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue include disrupted sleep, decrease in cognitive ability, impaired judgement, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and loss of hope and meaning. Leaders with compassion fatigue often show a lack of empathy and concern for other members of their team, avoid interactions with colleagues because they would rather be left alone, experience emotional and social disconnection and apathy, and display a general lack of purpose and pride in their work because they feel they aren’t making a difference.

To really understand the differences between burnout and compassion fatigue, here is a visual illustration according to The American Institute of Stress and the article Compassion Fatigue Vs. Burnout by Barbara Rubel:

           Compassion fatigue                        Burnout
Caused by chronic exposure to traumatic informationCaused by workplace stressors, not trauma
Rapid onsetEmerges gradually overtime
Faster recoveryLonger recovery period
Less severe if recognized and managed earlyOccurs in stages

What Can I Do About It?

Here are 10 tips for leaders who might struggle with the condition:

  1. Know the signs of compassion fatigue. Taking an assessment like the Professional Quality of Life Scale (Proqol) can be an effective tool to determine the severity of compassion fatigue, burnout and traumatic stress.
  2. Act early to manage the symptoms. Develop an action plan for recovery. Set S.M.A.R.T. recovery goals with the help of a therapist, coach or mentor. Refer to your organization’s employee assistance programs if you are unsure where to start.  
  3. Seek consultation. Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout are not always apparent, especially when we are experiencing high levels of stress. Asking for feedback from those we trust helps raise awareness of the positive and negative impacts of our behavior, which leads to better self-awareness.
  4. Take time off to recharge. Give yourself adequate time off from being in a job-related caregiving role. Do this on a routine basis. Many good leaders sacrifice their wellbeing to ensure their team feels supported and the mission of the organization is accomplished.
  5. Focus on self-care and self-preservation. Setting clear boundaries with others will protect your emotional energy and wellbeing. Take self-focused breaks during and after the work day.
  6. Exercise more mindfulness. Be intentional about how and when you give your time and energy to help others. Check in with yourself: Are you well-rested, nourished and energized or do you feel depleted and running on fumes? This practice can help prevent compassion fatigue in the future.
  7. Take inventory of your personal values. Remind yourself of what’s most important to you. This Harvard Business Review Manager Tip of the Day suggests creating a “wall of encouragement” by displaying your accolades and achievements to remind yourself of the value you bring.
  8. Don’t beat yourself up. Compassion fatigue is a common experience among those who care for others. It can happen to anyone. Instead of beating yourself up, apply principles of self–compassion.
  9. Strive for work-life integration. Weave in enjoyable life activities that are also good for your mind and body. These can include exercise, reading, hiking, meditation and simply doing less.
  10. Set boundaries. Giving yourself permission to say no and setting firm boundaries is vital to promoting a healthy life balance. If you are like most people, setting limits is not an easy practice. To learn creative ways to do it, ask a co-worker who excels with this skill for tips.

“Accepting the presence of compassion fatigue in our lives only serves to validate the fact that we are deeply caring individuals.”

-Patricia Smith, Founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

Shakima Tozay is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and subject matter expert (SME) on counseling and advocacy programs in her current role. Her government career spans 15 years, starting in the Navy. Kima completed her Masters in Social Work degree from the University of Washington and has held positions with the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) and the ArmyKima is passionate about Diversity and Inclusion workplace issues. She earned a certificate from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business in Leveraging Diversity and Inclusion for Organizational Success. She also holds certifications in Executive Leadership and Women in Leadership Programs. You can connect with Kima on LinkedIn.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply