As the pandemic continues to impact our lives, it can be particularly stressful and traumatic to frontline, healthcare workers and caregivers.  Feeling of burnout, compassion fatigue and stress have become commonplace in many healthcare, community, and home settings.

As a mindfulness coach and physiotherapist, I have frequently heard comments of ‘overwhelmed’, ‘exhausted’ and ‘drained’ when speaking with other health care providers and caregivers, over the past year.

Many people have had to change the type of work they do; change the way they work; and deal with greater numbers of clients.  An increased stress and anxiety level is also noted in health care workers as they work outside the home exposing themselves to the virus and then returning to their families.

Learning to recognize the symptoms and finding ways to cope and practice self care are important in managing and preventing healthcare worker burnout and caregiver fatigue. In this article, I talk about the symptoms and causes of compassion fatigue, as well as provide some mindfulness practices and free online resources to help you cope better.

Compassion Fatigue Definition

Compassion fatigue is characterized by an emotional and physical exhaustion that can often lead to feelings of apathy and disconnect.  This can result in an inability to deal with the everyday tasks of life.

It is helpful to understand that our empathic response is a natural brain response that goes back to our need for survival where we had to feel another person’s intentions as either safe or dangerous.  Another important component is understanding that our empathic response happens automatically and without conscious awareness, activating the very neural structures within ourselves that are active in those experiencing the emotion.[i]

This can be helpful in sympathizing and understanding in therapeutic relationships, however, can be detrimental in the long term.  The same harmful stress responses are occurring within ourselves even if we are only listening or helping to deal with another person’s suffering.

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

The following are common symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering
  • Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness and anxiety
  • Feeling detached from our surroundings or from our physical or emotional experience
  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted, burnt out or numb
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches
  • Reduced empathy
  • Feeling hypersensitive or insensitive to stories we hear
  • Limited tolerance for stress
  • Self-isolation and withdrawal
  • Relationship conflict
  • Feeling less efficient or productive at work
  • Reduced pleasure in activities we used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions
  • Self-medicating and increase in substance use[ii]

Turning Compassion Fatigue into Healthy Empathy

Changing our automatic empathy response into a healthy response using attentional-based awareness can help deter burnout and compassion fatigue.  By developing mindfulness practices, we can distinguish between another’s suffering and our own and still be present to both.

Mindfulness Practices to Help You Cope

Developing Intention – Begin your day on reflecting on what brought you to this work.  Why did you choose this field to work in, and what deeper meaning does this work hold for you, what inspires you to meet the challenges of your work everyday?

Practice presence and mindful listening – Practice a few minutes of mindfulness outside of your work.  Use the breath or another anchor to focus your attention.  By practising this technique of grounding outside of the work environment, it can help us to let go of our attachments or stresses during our therapeutic interactions.  It also enables us to be empathic toward others experiences without feeling overwhelmed by them.

Self compassion toward self and others – Acknowledging that everyone struggles at different times in their lives, including ourselves, is an important aspect of minimizing burnout.  Recognizing and bringing a compassionate awareness toward these struggles is important.  One practice is the self compassion break described by self compassion expert Dr. Kristen Neff.[iii]  During a stressful time, acknowledging the experience, recognizing the common experience of suffering and giving yourself compassion for having this experience is one quick way to deal with stressful situations.

Online Resources for Healthcare Workers & Caregivers

Project ECHO is a joint initiative by CAMH and University of Toronto to advance the knowledge of Ontario healthcare workers and health professionals.  ECHO Coping with COVID is a free online resource designed for healthcare providers and caregivers dealing with the numerous effects of the pandemic.  Information includes topics such as parenting, healthcare worker distress and communicating with clients during the pandemic.

Remembering to practice physical self care is also important in managing and preventing burnout.  Getting enough exercise, sleeping and eating well and connecting with social supports is essential in maintaining your well being.   At Propel Physiotherapy our therapists can help you plan and achieve your physical goals, as well as therapists who utilize yoga and mindfulness practices to help your overall wellbeing.

Written by

Kathy Mileski
Kathy MileskiRegistered Physiotherapist and Mindfulness Trainer
Kathy Mileski loves the idea of helping others be as mobile and active as they possibly can. She believes that every person has the potential to do amazing things. That belief bolstered by her training and experience has helped her clients to achieve success in their rehab goals no matter where they are in terms of their recovery.

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