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How to Recognize Compassion Fatigue Symptoms in Caregivers

Are your employees experiencing compassion fatigue? or something else? Here’s how to tell.

Caregiver turnover is over 70% in agencies that provide direct care. One of the sources of that turnover? Compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a condition that can look like any number of other things. The most common of which are burnout and depression. So how do you tell the difference between the three?

Compassion fatigue –

Compassion fatigue is usually caused by secondary trauma and presents like PTSD and stress. It is a function of working with traumatized clients. Compassion fatigue has a quick, almost sudden, onset.

Its signs and symptoms:  gastrointestinal issues, physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment (shown by decreased empathy for clients), isolation. It’s not job-specific, i.e., a change of scene will not address the issue.

Typical sufferers: direct care professionals (examples are DSPs, first responders of all types, doctors, nurses, veterinarians, aides and technicians that assist all the afore-mentioned pros.

Other signs and symptoms: irritability, perfectionism, avoidance or dread of working with some clients, somatic complaints, addictions, nightmares, muscle tension, headaches, substance abuse, changes in beliefs, expectations, assumptions, frequent use of sick days, relational disturbances.

Burnout –

Typically, burnout is caused by pressure and stress from job/workplace. Unlike compassion fatigue, no direct trauma is involved. Burnout accumulates over time and progresses gradually.

Its stages: enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration, negativity, cynicism, apathy.

Typical sufferers: people in positions with little to no control, little to no privacy, lots of pressure, and externally-imposed demands. Burnout is often helped by a vacation, change of job or job duties, change of scenery, or a different organization.

Depression –

Depression – whether clinical or situational – is intrinsic to the individual. It is caused by chemical imbalances in the person suffering from it, not necessarily the job they hold.

Its stages: Depression can sneak up on an individual, especially if there is a genetic predisposition to it, which a person may not even know about. Depression is not something that can be “cured” by a change of scenery, pace, or client; it’s an internal thing.

Typical sufferers: anyone can develop situational depression. The clinical variety is a result of triggering the genetic predisposition to it.

What should you do if you think your employee is experiencing compassion fatigue?

First, know that mental health professional is best qualified to tell the difference between, say, compassion fatigue and depression. Do not try to diagnose this issue on your own.

In an employee – self-regulation, intentionality, professional maturation, connection, self-care. These are professional terms for staying aware of what a person is doing, remembering why the person is in a helping profession in the first place, connecting with others who do the same sort of job, and taking care of him- or herself, which is probably the single most important thing to do.

In others – encourage a visit with a mental health professional. The initial visit doesn’t have to be anything as formal as an office session. The mental health professional can observe the individual to get an initial impression of what’s really going on.

Above all, DON’T try to diagnose the issue. Playing doctor could cause all kinds of trouble. There may be something going on in addition to the compassion fatigue that may require professional attention, including medications. It can be tempting to try to handle it alone, especially when it’s a favorite colleague or the caregiver flatly refuses to talk to a mental health professional (e.g., “I’m not crazy, I’m just tired”). It’s best if a pro deals with it.

Compassion fatigue is not burnout or depression; however, if not addressed, compassion fatigue can lead to something even more serious. If behaviors in an employee or others are of concern for any reason, pay attention to those behaviors and take action.

Final thoughts

At DCI, we want to partner with you no matter what your challenge. Many of us are from the industry and have either experienced compassion fatigue ourselves or we have supported someone with compassion fatigue. Let us help you by taking away some of your administrative burdens and letting you focus on your caregivers and the people they support. Call us today or set up a demo to see if we can help (480) 295-3307.

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