As she contemplated this, the on-call phone rang again. She had recently changed the ringtone because her kids had come to dread what it meant for their mom’s mood. She could see that the caller was the daughter of one of her newest clients. She groaned and reached for the phone. This person was very anxious about her mom’s situation and seemed to need endless reassurance. Laurie felt a rush of panic when she answered the phone.
It was starting to seem like this was becoming the norm. Laurie didn’t want to look at a phone, let alone answer it. Everyone was getting on her nerves. Every phone call was another crisis. She was starting to doubt her decision-making skills. Laurie was not enjoying her work and neither were the people around her.
Laurie recounts: “I went to three client funerals in 10 days, still grieving my own mother’s death. I remember losing patience with the adult daughter who was complaining about her mother, thinking ‘at least your mother is still alive!’ I knew something was wrong when I felt angry at my caregiver who called out because she needed to take her sick baby to the hospital.”
What is Compassion Fatigue?
While workplace burnout is well recognized, the concept of Compassion Fatigue is not. Burnout can happen in almost any job environment. Tedium and stress can build up and make a person less and less tolerant of a given situation. Although Compassion Fatigue is different, it does have some very similar symptoms. Also referred to as secondary traumatic stress syndrome, it comes from repeated exposure to other people’s problems, anxieties, and crises, and the anticipation of more to come. Every time the phone rings it could be another crisis.
In a home care setting, the crisis environment is made up of not only the health concerns of clients and the resulting stress it puts on their families, it also includes issues surrounding caregivers and staff. Everyday life struggles that affect individual employees like child care, car troubles, and money issues all have an adverse effect on agency staff.
Add to this the regular stress of your own personal home life—children, spouses, bills, the nightly news, politics, maybe even caregiving for your own parent or loved one—and even the strongest person can succumb to Compassion Fatigue.
“All of us who attempt to heal the wounds of others will ourselves be wounded; it is, after all, inherent in the relationship” (Figley, 2002)
One of the especially corrosive effects Compassion Fatigue can have is to bring about a loss of empathy. For example, when a potential new client calls because her mom just fell and broke her hip and she needs to vent about it, you may find yourself unable to draw on what used to be an endless supply of patience.