Compassion Fatigue

Sad Nurse

Last year I managed a project with health professionals. During this project I talked to a number of people who work in the health sector, who talked about how difficult their job had become. After years of austerity and underfunding, being told to do ‘more with less’ (one of the most idiotic HR/Management speak cliches) many health professionals are tired. They spoke of people who’d being in the profession a long time and were suffering from ‘compassion fatigue.’

In an earlier blog post I discussed why too much reliance on specialisation can have detrimental effects on individuals and the economy. In a profession like nursing, people working in the sector can easily find themselves trapped in jobs they no longer enjoy. Further they feel their contribution is not adequately remunerated or even properly acknowledged.

Generally people go into a profession like nursing as they want to help people. They get a buzz from helping someone in need and assisting them in their recovery. But do the same job day in day out, month after month, year after year…the buzz soon goes. As the decades roll by you increasingly find yourself cynical, and even slightly nauseated when the exited young nursing graduates are running around the hospital. All you can think is, you won’t be this happy in 20 years.

Sadly this happens to many people in caring professions. Professions that are often underpaid and undervalued. They find that they have been pigeon holed into these roles and struggle to get out. When looking for other work, friends and colleagues will just suggest jobs in the same field, and you increasingly feel trapped. Its not that you don’t care, its not that you don’t still want to help people. But you are tired, and its hard to keep looking after others when you feel nobody is there to help you.

This can quickly turn ugly. The person feeling unhappy and trapped becomes increasingly unhappy. One day they snap and tell their boss that they are an idiotic f#@k wit. They end up in a disciplinary meeting with the manager and HR. A union rep or some other employment advocate will be called in to represent them. This will be the one of 7-8 such cases said advocate will be dealing with that week, and you can be certain they too are becoming heartily sick of their job. Swearing at your boss is a sackable offence, but it will become clear that the manager didn’t follow the proper procedure, as they are in fact an idiotic f#@k wit. A confidential settlement will be reached and the employee is paid a couple of months salary. If the person is lucky this will be the opportunity they needed to change careers. Usually however this is the beginning of a long period of unemployment, and eventually a move into a lower paid role in the same profession.

For most people it doesn’t end up like this. Most people just struggle on and try and find ways to cope with being in a role they are over doing but can’t get out of. But in roles that require compassion this is a challenge. Compassion and empathy are not easy things to fake. And often you do still care, but you its hard not maintain the same level of energy that you had when you started in the role.

Health care professionals and other caring professions such as social workers or people who work in other social services do such an important role. So why do we work these people to exhaustion and suck all the energy out of them? Why do we trap people in roles for years that require a high level of emotional energy? People in these roles should be properly paid and valued. Also they should be given opportunities to train and transition to other roles if/when they feel the need to move on. After a break doing something else they may later want to return to their caring role, and they will do so with replenished energy and renewed passion.

People who care and help others are gems. We need to look after these people.

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