Recognizing Compassion Fatigue: The First Step to Building Resilience

TON - March 2017, Vol 10, No 2 - Best Practices
Meg Barbor, MPH

Oncology professionals are routinely exposed to patient distress and trauma, and this may lead to a phenomenon called compassion fatigue, according to Charles Figley, PhD, Kurzweg Chair, Disaster Mental Health, and Director of the Traumatology Institute, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA.

Compassion requires dedication and sensitivity to the pain and suffering of others, and to be compassionate is to be effective in assessing and helping those who are suffering, he explained in a webinar hosted by the American Psychosocial Oncology Society in January 2017.

Compassion fatigue is often experienced by those who care for people in distress, and is displayed in the natural behaviors and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatic event experienced by another individual, to the degree that it is traumatizing to the caregiver. This often results in the caregiver’s reduced capacity for or interest in being empathic or compassionate, and frequently leads to poor self-care and extreme self-sacrifice in the process of helping. Therefore, it is crucial for those who work in oncology to build compassion fatigue resilience.

A practitioner with high compassion fatigue resilience has the ability to withstand considerable distress of others, whereas a practitioner with low compassion fatigue resilience experiences symptoms of distress and distraction, and has difficulty witnessing another’s suffering.

“People who work with patients with cancer deal with death, and that’s one of the scariest aspects of life. And if it scares other people, it can potentially scare you,” Dr Figley said.

He stressed the importance of recognizing the protective and risk factors associated with compassion fatigue.

“We need to spend as much time attending to what’s going on inside of ourselves as we do attending to our clients. As a result, we’ll be far more sensitive and effective in working with suffering clients,” he urged.

Building Compassion Fatigue Resilience

Compassion fatigue resilience is achieved when an individual’s empathy for clients, colleagues, and self is fostered and developed.

“We know a lot about the negative, unintended consequences of working with suffering people, but resilience is about harnessing the knowledge we have, and making it work for us. When you’re able to have and maintain that compassionate core, you’re compassionate and empathic for your patients and for yourself,” Dr Figley said.

High compassion fatigue resilience does not always come naturally, but can be enhanced through the practice of certain protective factors, such as self-care, detachment, finding a sense of satisfaction in one’s work, and developing a social support system at work and at home. All of these factors predict the probability of a person’s resilience, he noted.

According to Dr Figley, a trauma-exposed individual can develop into a confident, caring, competent, and efficient worker and social being—and the same goes for those who are compassion fatigued.

“You’ve gone past what most people can tolerate, and you need to take a break. You need to connect with the motivation you had for going into this work, and reconnect with all the positive experiences you’ve had that build up your compassion satisfaction,” Dr Figley said.

Building compassion fatigue resilience can increase confidence and boost mood while allowing a person to better handle the stresses of work and everyday life, he added, “but always take pride in being a human being who cares about other people.”

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Last modified: March 14, 2017