‘Helping Professions’ Face Continued Stresses Amid Latest Covid Wave

Eighteen months into the pandemic, compassion fatigue — often called “the cost of caring”– is on the rise again. Right here in Vermont, the current Covid wave is hitting the healthcare system at a time of widespread workforce shortages. The workers left are more likely to be overburdened, on top of their own stresses.

All of this can lead to compassion fatigue, broadly defined as the negative aspects of working in the helping professions. People employed or acting as “helpers” include caregivers, first responders, and the whole range of health and medical professions. They are more at risk because they are exposed more frequently to people who are in need.

“As helpers, we are more at risk,” Cath Burns, Ph.D. told participants in a COVID Support VT workshop on compassion fatigue. Burns, a Vermont-based child psychologist, is clinical supervisor for COVID Support VT and quality director for Vermont Care Partners (VCP). “If you’re in a helping profession, just by the nature of existing at this time, during this pandemic, you are at heightened risk of developing compassion fatigue.”

Compassion Satisfaction vs. Fatigue and Burnout

Compassion satisfaction refers to the positive aspects of working as a helper. Employees with high levels of compassion satisfaction enjoy helping others. They feel effective at their jobs, hold positive beliefs about themselves, and appreciate the camaraderie and teamwork of colleagues.

Compassion fatigue is the flip side of that. In care providers’ positions, the risk for compassion fatigue is related to how much care one provides and how intense it is. Another important factor is how supportive and responsive the employer is to the needs of employees. Interpersonal relationships with colleagues can help or hinder,

Compassion fatigue doesn’t mean you’ve run out of compassion for fellow humans. It may actually be the opposite, that you’ve taken on the trauma of the one you’re helping as if it were your own. Or you start to feel overwhelmed by their needs. This is a condition psychologists call “secondary trauma.” The main component is an element of fear, similar to a reaction to a traumatic event you’ve experienced personally. Symptoms can come on quickly and are sometimes similar to those of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, including sleeplessness, fearful thoughts, and a sense of heightened anxiety or jumpiness. Without intervention, prolonged exposure can indeed make one withdraw emotionally. 

Secondary trauma often has a travel partner called burnout. People use the word to mean a lot of different things. In psychological terms, burnout comes from feelings of insufficiency. Feeling worn out, hopeless or ineffective are common signs of burnout. Often people who feel this way are overwhelmed with work and feel insufficiently supported in their job environment.

The ABCs of Self-Care

Burns outlined a three-step plan of action to prevent compassion fatigue from robbing joy from work in the helping professions. It starts with Awareness, Balance and Connections.

Awareness. if you’re aware of how you’re doing then you’re in a better place to do something about it if you choose to. Complete the checklist in our workshop participant handout to see if you might be experiencing compassion fatigue.

Balance. Promote and work toward balance by developing a daily wellness plan either individually, or as a team. Encouraging healthy habits for coping with stress, including taking breaks and maintaining a good separation of work and home, can go a long way to helping people feel better.

Connection. Connect to others through teaming up, checking in on one another, and encouraging and modeling self-care across work groups. 

“Connection is what we’re all missing most right now, and it’s imperative that we find ways to connect regularly with one another.”

~ Cath Burns, Ph.D., Clinical Supervisor, COVID Support VT and VCP Quality Director

Learn More and Find Resources

Watch a brief online workshop on compassion fatigue, by COVID Support VT Clinical Supervisor Cath Burns, Ph.D.

If you’re in a helping profession and your team is at risk for compassion, consider scheduling a free customized workshop with COVID Support VT facilitators. Fill out this form to request a workshop.

Watch a free webinar from the Howard Center that reinvents the discussion around compassion fatigue so that it is applicable for all of us. 

Learn more with this recent review from MedLynx: Is It Compassion Fatigue or Burnout?

This fact sheet from SAMHSA, Understanding Compassion Fatigue, while geared toward first responders, includes practical guidelines and resources applicable to many people in the helping professions.The APA article, Are You Experiencing Compassion Fatigue, includes tips for prevention and self-care.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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