Have you ever heard of the terms “burnout,” “compassion fatigue,” or “secondary traumatic stress?” If not, you’ll soon find out what these terms mean in this article. Each week we discuss issues specific to parents, families, caregivers, and individuals who are living with or helping someone with a mental health condition. But this week, we’ll talk a bit about the mental health professional and the challenges many helpers face. The challenges that mental health professionals face can ultimately affect the type of service you receive. This doesn’t mean that the professional is incapable of helping you, but it does mean that skill level can be affected. You should be aware of how compassion fatigue affects someone you are working closely with.
No one will escape fatigue in this life, it is inevitable. It’s even more inevitable in the lives of helping professionals. The field of psychiatry and the profession of mental health is both an emotionally and mentally stressful job. It only works best when the people involved have been “called” to do such a work or when the professionals work together in supporting each other. It is only then that the job will get done correctly, promptly, and with care. Sadly, there are times when the professionals in the field are so overworked, burned out, and fatigued that the profession itself and people relying on the professionals quickly deteriorate.
When a mental health professional feels emotional, physical, and psychological strain so much that it interferes with motivation, level of compassion toward clients, and overall thinking patterns, this is called burnout. Burnout is a sort of fatigue that occurs every so often in the lives of helping professionals and has a way of reducing their overall effectiveness, attention to detail, and cognitive abilities. Individuals who are “first responders” (police officers, mental health crisis workers, suicide prevention workers, social workers, medical doctors, psychiatrists, nurses, and therapists), are often the first to burnout within the first couple of years in their profession. This is due to the fact that many are new to the field, untrained, poorly trained, overworked, or even “over-trained.” What I mean by “overtrained” is that many professionals must attend (or choose to attend) trainings year round and that could include or exceed 50-60 classes a year! Those who feel “over-trained” are constantly at the top of their game by attending multiple seminars, workshops, and achieving multiple credentials within a short span of time. Individuals like this are very likely to burn out quickly. I was one of these individuals during the early stages of my career in mental health.
I’ve come to realize that there are 4 major overarching themes of burnout that we should all watch out for:
Secondary traumatic stress (STS) or what is more commonly known as Compassion Fatigue, is a form of fatigue that results from a helping professional indirectly or vicariously experiencing the stress and strain of another person’s traumatic situation. For example, if a mental health therapist works with chronically suicidal or self-injurious clients over a long period of time, they can become increasingly more desensitized to this population of patients or clients and begin to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Once this happens, the professional can “lose compassion” for this population and eventually burn-out. I’ve seen this in a milder form in many clinics and mental health hospitals. Some individuals develop a nonchalant attitude that says “oh well, I cannot save the world, I’m not going to get stressed out about it!” Other helping professionals experiencing milder forms of compassion fatigue may begin to think like this: “I cannot answer every single phone call I receive, this person will hear from me tomorrow.”
Sadly, many professionals begin to downplay or underestimate the seriousness of their position. Unfortunately, many begin to view their clients as “crying wolf.” From my experience, this is an indirect way of removing oneself from feeling overwhelmed or pressured by the reality of working with very needy and chronically ill individuals. It can also be a way to remove oneself from having to feel the great responsibility of having to cater to such chronically ill clients.
Another form of stress for helping professionals is guilt. I have personally experienced this on occasion while working with some very behaviorally disturbed clients and their families. I previously worked with the at-risk population and juvenile delinquents and many parents called me on my weekends, vacations, and even after hours to leave messages on my voicemail. The parent almost demanded a response “as soon as possible.” As a beginning professional, I wanted to help and I loved feeling needed by people I wanted to help. But I soon realized that my feelings of guilt prompted me to respond and ultimately feel burned out by their frequent need of me. In many cases, the phone calls were about things that could have waited such as “when is my daughter going to see the psychiatrist?” “When can I request a new prescription?” Or “can you talk to my son about dating this girl?” My feelings of guilt for not responding right away, eventually burned me out.
Believe it or not, when a professional who is well-meaning feels burned out, they can become selfish. Everything in their world now revolves around them because they failed to provide themselves with much needed self-care. I’ve seen multiple professionals retreat into a fantasy world, into their dating world, or “cell phone world.” They will play games at work or during their break, request frequent breaks, or go out to lunch and stay too long. While the person believes they are engaging in self-care, they are really just being selfish and neglecting their responsibilities because they cannot handle the stress and strain of their position or job. This happens in way too many cases to number. Many professionals need to be reminded to take self-care seriously in their personal lives so that when they return to work, they can focus entirely on the duties of the job.
Some helping professionals feel “run over” by colleagues, supervisors, other superiors, and clients or patients. When this happens, some professionals will attempt to rebound by putting up more boundaries or trying to come across as strong. This is often done in an attempt to protect oneself from feeling “run over” or taken advantage of. In an attempt to rebound, the person may actually exhibit more aggression, edginess, or rudeness instead of firmness or stricter boundaries. The person may retreat or isolate and appear less friendly or helpful. The person may lash out in aggressive ways as opposed to firm, respectful ways. The person may also decline invitations from colleagues to events, reject requests for help from superiors or colleagues, or begin calling off more regularly. While the individual believes that they are instilling better boundaries, they are coming off as uncaring, rude, and aggressive. This is one of the reasons why it is important for mental health professionals to instill firm boundaries from the start so that they won’t find themselves in this position.
As you can see, helping professionals experience a lot of strain and pressure. It’s no wonder many leave the profession for quieter lives. Not only do helping professionals experience the above, but so too do caregivers, friends, and family members of loved ones with severe mental health conditions. The best way to fight against it is to recognize it and engage in much needed self-care.
Stay tuned for next week’s article on “38 tips for finding ways to relax!”
As always, I wish you well.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 30, 2013 but has been updated to reflect comprehensiveness and accuracy.