Helping doesn’t have to hurt: Managing compassion fatigue in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

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Sharise Nance is a licensed clinical social worker, certified clinical trauma professional and compassion fatigue specialist. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

In my 21-year career as a social worker, there have been many good days and many breakthroughs and times when something worked out just right. But just as often and occasionally at the same time, there are the days when I would go home after helping numerous people and feel exhausted and empty.

Social service and healthcare professionals are often called upon to offer hope and healing to those struggling to navigate life’s complexities. On a typical day, the expectations placed upon frontline workers by themselves and others are high. And it puts them at high risk for compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is the emotional distress or apathy resulting from the constant demands of caring for others and witnessing pain, suffering and trauma. It is a serious, yet natural, consequence of helping people who are experiencing pain and trauma.

Now, the COVID-19 global pandemic is amplifying all of the factors that lead to compassion fatigue. The pandemic demands an increased need for frontline and direct response workers to fulfill the medical, mental and social health needs of the families and communities impacted. 

In a short amount of time, we have been required to make abrupt changes to our personal and professional lives. These abrupt changes have evoked fear, anxiety and exhaustion across the globe, greatly affecting the work of mental health professionals. 

Social workers practicing in mental health, community organization, education, government and medical facilities have transitioned to providing telehealth services, while others continue to work on the front lines. In any of the settings, social workers are attempting to manage their own mental health while assisting individuals and families process intense emotions around an event unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. This balancing act is a recipe for hitting peak compassion fatigue among ‘helping professionals.’ 

Symptoms of compassion fatigue include, but are not limited to, exhaustion, guilt, neglecting self-care, social isolation, irritability, checking out emotionally, faking empathy, lack of focus, lack of fulfillment, changes in sleep, appetite, hopelessness and cynicism.

Compassion fatigue can be considered the “common cold” of the helping profession because everyone is prone to this condition. A 2011 survey by the American Psychological Association revealed that 54% of mental health professionals experience compassion fatigue. 

While many new social workers and others in helping professions are ill-prepared for the harsh realities of this profession, I don’t think any of us were prepared to help our clients through a global pandemic. 

Through my personal and professional practice, I have discovered techniques to help the helpers build an immunity to fight and/or manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue. In the past few weeks, through my own practice and in speaking with colleagues, I have found that managing compassion fatigue during these times requires slightly different approaches to attack compassion fatigue at the core.

  • Take care of basic needs: It is imperative that helping professionals make time in their schedules to eat, sleep and move. Food is fuel, and you will need the energy to do this work. Sleep allows the brain and body to reset. Movement — be it through walking, running or stretching — moves the unsettling emotions, stress and traumas through the body. 
  • Complete the stress cycle daily: Stressors are heightened, and many of us are operating in survival mode. The circumstantial stressors can quickly pile up and manifest into exhaustion, hopelessness and other physiological symptoms. The best way to prevent this cycle is to engage in some type of activity (walk, sing, yell in a pillow, cry). This activity will allow your nervous system to metabolize the stress. 
  • Keep your daily routine as consistent as possible: This is especially true for the telehealth providers. Working from home can cause us to overestimate time and underestimate capacity. The current circumstances will call for some tweaks in your schedule such as exercising from home and finding a safe and private work space. However, try to keep the same schedule for waking up, showering, eating, exercising, etc. Doing so will help to keep you centered while also giving you peace and comfort during this transition. 
  • Take a self-compassion break: Take time throughout the day to acknowledge that this is hard and you are doing the best you can during a global pandemic. It may even help to say some things aloud, like, “I am having a difficult time” or “I’m going to be kind to myself in this moment.” Speak to yourself in the same tone and with the same compassion that you would to your clients and loved ones. 

Compassion fatigue can be considered the “common cold” of the helping profession because everyone is prone to this condition, the author, Sharise Nance, writes. (Photo by Jay Manning)

Studies have revealed that 32% of therapists suffer from burnout and depression, which can negatively impact their work. Studies have also revealed that recognition of professionals can help decrease burnout by nearly 50%. 

While social work can be rewarding, it can also be challenging and thankless. The expectations are high and the compensation in many ways can be low.

I have a message for my fellow social workers: Remember the reason you chose this work. Recognize when your brain needs a break from the trauma. Although the current state of the world may appear grim, your presence, empathy and compassion give hope to so many. 

Let’s continue to work together to flatten this curve and offer hope in the midst of what may appear as hopelessness. Thank you all for making daily sacrifices in your attempts to make this world a better place.  

Sharise Nance is a licensed clinical social worker, certified clinical trauma professional, compassion fatigue specialist, adjunct professor and award-winning entrepreneur and author. Sharise has created books, live workshops and online courses for her colleagues in social work. In addition to running her private practice, HandinHand Counseling Services, Sharise also dedicates her efforts to Vitamin C Healing, an organization dedicated to promoting life balance, satisfaction and fulfillment among those throughout the helping profession and beyond. Vitamin C Healing plans to host its inaugural awards ceremony on July 25 to honor the “heart work” of 21 social workers in the Greater Pittsburgh area that often goes unappreciated and unrecognized.

Sharise resides in Pittsburgh with her husband, William Nance. She can be reached via email at sharisenance@vitaminchealing.com.

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