“While we can offer our guidance and a shoulder to cry on, our responsibility does not lie in fixing others and their problems. We need to draw the line when it comes to giving help and remember that other people must ultimately take responsibility for their happiness, not us.” ― Aletheia Luna,
Awakened Empath: The Ultimate Guide to Emotional, Psychological and Spiritual Healing
As a working professional, two types of stress bring about mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion: burnout and compassion fatigue. As a person in a leadership role, one of those is becoming more prominent and too often mislabelled to be the other, more common type, burnout. I’m here to tell you that as leaders, we are now more prone to the lesser talked about stress than ever before: compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is not a new and trendy label; it has been around for decades but has been more commonly used in professions that deal with trauma, like doctors, nurses, and social workers. However, as a leader in today’s world, regardless of your industry, you too are susceptible to compassion fatigue. Thanks to our professional history that involves a pandemic, talent shortages, the ever-changing nature of work, a fragile economy with ripple effects that impact our team’s emotional well-being, and a trending expectation for emotional intelligence… compassion fatigue is becoming a problem for many leaders. They just don’t know it yet. “For the last two years, we are seeing more of this in the workplace. Leaders and managers have been asked to double down on empathy in support of team members recovering from grief, loss, and lapses in mental health. They have been asked to be more sensitive, to shoulder new emotional burdens while navigating exceptional levels of uncertainty, and do more with less. While this has been the order of the day, and most leaders have answered the call, it has come at a cost.” HBR
So What Is It?
So what exactly is compassion fatigue? To put it in layman’s terms, compassion fatigue occurs when we expend so much of our emotional energy on sympathizing with others that we have no compassion left for ourselves.
As business leaders, whether at an executive level or supervisory, we all find our empathy ebbs and flows. There are days that we can swoop in like superheroes, take charge and support our team through emotionally trying times. In contrast, on other days, we find ourselves maybe hiding behind closed office doors, just going through the motions, secretly numb, and trying to fake the level of empathy expected. “If you’re feeling emotionally exhausted from caring for your employees, know you’re not alone. Your feelings (or lack thereof) are valid. Many managers are finding that their empathy ebbs and flows. This is known as compassion fatigue: deep physical and emotional exhaustion accompanied by emotional pain” HBR
What To Look For
Some common signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue include insomnia or disrupted sleep, decreased cognitive ability, impaired judgment, depression, and loss of hope and meaning. Leaders with compassion fatigue often show a lack of empathy and concern for other members of their team, even going as far as avoiding interactions with colleagues because they would instead be left alone, and display a general lack of purpose and pride in their work because they feel they aren’t making a difference.
Charlene Richards does a phenomenal job of describing the five phases of Compassion Fatigue. As you read through each of these, I challenge you to be honest in identifying where you are currently at.
“1) The Zealot Phase – you know who you are! You would be in this phase very early in your career. You are so committed and available to the people you help. You enjoy solving problems and are passionate about making a difference. You are willing to put in extra hours and volunteer for extra projects. Self-care is great and you have a good balance in your life. You’re adorable here – and thriving.
2) The Irritability Phase – hmm…It’s not quite the same anymore. You start to lose your energy and passion. You may begin to cut corners or avoid certain clients. This is where “dark humor” can begin – less than respectful conversations about clients or colleagues. You may start to become distracted while interacting with clients and may start to make mistakes. You start to lose your self-care. This is where your warning signs are going off.
3) The Withdrawal Phase – uh oh – something is not right. You have lost your enthusiasm and begin to feel defeated. Clients may become a blur and become an annoyance. You are always tired and no longer want to talk about work or your profession. You start to neglect family and friends and yourself. You’re complaining about your personal and professional life.
4) The Zombie Phase – there’s nothing fun about the zombie phase! You are on a total automatic pilot and are disconnected from your thoughts and feelings. You no longer connect with your family, friends or colleagues. You have lost your ability to empathize with clients. You have lost your meaning and value in your role. You are likely experiencing noticeable health problems.
5) Pathology & Victimization VS. Maturation & Renewal – it’s do or die, so to speak. This is where you either become completely overwhelmed, have a physical illness, or leave the profession…..
OR you realize how you are being impacted, and you learn how to restore your health and protect yourself from Compassion Fatigue. You transform the way you approach your work and your life and you build your resiliency. You learn how to regain your passion and your compassion, and you use your skills for a long, fulfilling career.”
“Most leaders take pride in being preoccupied with the health/well-being and engagement of their teams, leading them to forget the steps necessary to take care of themselves. Leaders who embrace a popular philosophy – as go the leaders, so goes the culture and the company – should feel compelled to combat compassion fatigue by leading by example, taking time off, reaching out to HR and developing peer-to-peer accountability systems, putting their best selves forward to serve the needs of their teams and organization.” Sherry Waters
How to Combat Compassion Fatigue
Below are four methods outlined and explained by Innovation Map that leaders can use to manage and combat their own personal compassion fatigue.
Lead by example
One of the first things leaders should do is set an example by utilizing the programs themselves to address compassion fatigue. Practicing what they preach not only supports the mental well-being of leaders but it also demonstrates a culture that cares about mental health issues. Taking the initiative can encourage peers and others to take advantage of a company’s employee-support mechanisms.
Take time off
Disconnecting from work by taking time off is critical for renewal and emotional health, and leads to rejuvenated leaders who are highly engaged and more motivated to lead their teams. While taking time off benefits leaders, it also builds confidence in staff because they recognize the trust that has been placed in them while the boss is gone.
Reach out to HR
Based on the widespread occurrence of compassion fatigue, chances are other leaders are experiencing the same feelings. Reaching out to HR can help get the ball rolling for additional programs designed to support leaders. For example, hosting lunch-and-learn sessions with medical professionals for advice, offering training sessions that cover relaxation methods, and creating a buddy system that pairs leaders for increased connections and mutual support. When leaders throughout the company realize they are not alone, they will feel more comfortable seeking help and participating in company-sponsored programs.
Develop a peer-to-peer accountability system
For higher-level executives who report directly to busy CEOs or a board of directors, there are fewer levels of oversight to address compassion fatigue. In fact, these may be the very individuals in most need of support. Executive teams should develop peer-to-peer accountability systems to support each other via biweekly mental health check-up chats, periodic PTO usage updates, quarterly retreats with dedicated downtime to relax, and weekly walking meetings. When executive teams create accountability systems, it helps to support mental health and well-being, build greater trust, and nurture stronger relationships that position leaders to better serve the organization.
“Self-care helps you relate to your team’s struggles. When you prioritize self-care, you’re admitting that there are areas of your well-being you’d like to improve. This helps you become a more empathetic leader—someone who truly understands your team members’ struggles. In fact, acknowledging your own vulnerability will help your team members not just look up to you, but relate to you better. Remember, workers trust authentic leaders who can admit their weaknesses as well as their strengths.” Dan Swable, Workplace Intelligence.
We are on the journey with you.
If you or your team are experiencing signs of compassion fatigue, Clarity HR is here to help with training resources, removing some of the burdens by taking on some of the emotionally draining conversations, and offering options of third party resources and programs.
Written by: Lois Stowe
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