Awake to exhaustion: How employers can help staff suffering from compassion fatigue

Advice and top tips

Awake to exhaustion: How employers can help staff suffering from compassion fatigue

In a London office, a web developer arrives late and subdued. She’s not her usual positive and efficient self, and she keeps making mistakes. The reason? She’s heard on the news that a famine is predicted in The Sudan.

With no personal connection to that country, her employers are perplexed.

It’s their first encounter with compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

In a recent WTW webcast – ‘Supporting employees through times of uncertainty and change’ – Clare Price, director of clinical services at mental health care provider, Onebright, explained that compassion fatigue is caused by empathy.

“It’s a natural consequence of stress that is caused by caring about – or helping – people who are suffering.”

World events, such as the pandemic, and the almost unavoidable surfeit of news feeds, mean it is hardly surprising that more and more people are experiencing compassion fatigue.

The overload of empathy can be overwhelming, and many sufferers say it exhausts all their emotional resources.

With the risk of more people succumbing to the condition, and the stress-related mental health issues, impaired work performance and long-term absence it can cause, employers need to be aware and prepared.

Recognising the symptoms

Awareness of early indicators of compassion fatigue in employees will help employers to make early interventions. Unfortunately, compassion fatigue develops gradually over time and many of its symptoms, such as lack of focus, are shared with other mental health issues.

Fostering a culture that encourages employees to approach employers with their concerns – more of which later – is the ideal, but there are a number of compassion fatigue-specific signs to look out for.

Unexpected emotional bluntness – over, or under, reacting to events and circumstances, and a lack of expected sympathy are three of signs that may point to compassion fatigue.

In the webcast, Price explained how sufferers can experience a sense of disconnection to situations or emotions – as if they were viewing things through a pane of glass.

Conversely, they can feel more involved in events than they actually are. Employees who repeatedly expose themselves to news footage of traumatic events can develop vicarious PTSD.

Four ways of building the right environment

1. Acknowledge and inform

Although compassion fatigue surfaced a number of years ago, it is a relatively new phenomenon for those working outside the care and charity sectors. It is important that employers make it clear they understand it and recognise it as a credible concern. By doing so, employees are more likely to come forward, open up and seek support.

Not all employees may be conversant with the condition. This could increase anxiety in those who are experiencing it without knowing the cause. Educational talks and presentations, hosted by a compassion fatigue specialist, could provide welcome enlightenment. Sufferers of a range of afflictions often say that just having it identified, named and explained is helpful.

2. Encourage Talk

Supressing thoughts and feelings can have a detrimental effect on health, so ensure employees have opportunities to talk about their anxieties. Open discussions, sharing coping strategies, regular check-ins and follow-ups are all ways of achieving this.

Through discussions with colleagues, employees may realise that their reaction to a traumatic world event is likely to be shared by many others, and they are not overreacting for feeling affected by something that they have no personal connection with.

Price said: “It’s helpful to understand that it’s not your reaction that’s abnormal. The situation is abnormal, and your reaction to an abnormal situation is probably quite normal.”

3. Point the way to professional help

If compassion fatigue is affecting an employee’s ability to function, then they should be advised how EAPs can best help them.

Most employers will have considerable resources to support emotional wellbeing within their benefits schemes.

Some organisations have mental health first aiders, while others provide onsite counselling, mediation and massage sessions, which employees may find beneficial.

Where company support is not available, employees could be advised to seek help by self-referral to a GP. Their doctor will be able to inform them of appropriate NHS therapies and counselling.

Sufferers could also be directed to charities, many of which often provide bespoke support in response to trending events.

4. Keep employees connected

In the webcast, Rich Smith, a WTW healthcare concierge clinician, highlighted the importance of social connectedness.

“Scientists believe that we are essentially wired to connect with other people and low socialising can be associated with greater odds of poor mental health and perceived stress,” he said.

Since those experiencing compassion fatigue can be prone to feelings of isolation and despair, responsible employers could consider providing meaningful social activities to help alleviate this.

Engagement is more beneficial than mere distraction, so social opportunities that have been tailored to group interest will have most chance of success.

Compassion fatigue can be compounded by feelings of powerlessness, and frustrating thoughts that there is nothing the individual can do to make a difference. There is a risk that employers who organise charity projects in response could be adding to employees’ levels of fatigue. But, if carefully planned and sensitively handled, such events could empower by providing a constructive alternative to despair.

Take the lead

There was a time when compassion fatigue was largely confined among those who worked in the caring professions – those who witnessed trauma on a seemingly daily basis.

Perceptive employers will have realised that, due to events in the last two years, the impact is now more far-reaching.

Being pro-active in your treatment of compassion fatigue will not only help your employees, it could also help your business to remain in good health.