Working in the behavioral healthcare industry has its benefits — there is opportunity to be part of an individual’s journey to recovery and to help celebrate milestones, among other reasons. Working in this field also has its challenges. Listening to heartbreaking stories of individuals and the trauma they have experienced, six to eight hours a day, over a period of years, can add up and take a toll on any professional.

In order to do this work effectively, a professional has to learn to distance themselves from the stories they hear.  It is important to empathize, not sympathize, with a client — understand their feelings, not feel their feelings. Those who work closely with clients can be prone to secondary trauma from hearing horrific stories of what has happened, and can reach the point where it becomes so overwhelming that their minds and body go into self-preservation mode – they shut down and stop demonstrating compassion to the clients that are being served.   

We call this Compassion Fatigue and it can be a normal response to the day-to-day exposure of traumatic events in people’s lives. And, it can happen to the most experienced and competent of professionals.  Some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue are as follows: physical and mental fatigue, insomnia, bottling up emotions, and denial. According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “denial is one of the most detrimental symptoms, because it prevents those who are experiencing compassion fatigue from accurately assessing how fatigued and stressed they actually are, which prevents them from seeking help.”

To combat this, it is important to become aware that compassion fatigue exists. Once aware of the reality, the next thing to do is to find a trusted confidant to talk it out – express your thoughts and feelings to a therapist, coworker, friend or family. It is important to have individuals you can rely on for support, especially when you begin to express some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Next, it is important to develop a healthy work/life balance.  Oftentimes, people who put all their energy into their work, helping those most in need, become unbalanced and work becomes their identity.  They tend to neglect their own self-care as they give to everyone else.  They may also have their own unresolved traumas that need to be addressed in counseling. Regular exercise, healthy eating habits, getting enough sleep, taking time off, and enjoyable social activities are a few ways to help combat compassion fatigue.

Understanding and becoming aware of the symptoms, learning how to address the secondary trauma, seeking connections to express emotions, and learning healthy coping strategies for work/life balance can help professionals avoid compassion fatigue. The clients that are seen each day in this industry are in need of compassion, empathy and change. As professionals become more aware and tend to compassion fatigue, they will be able to provide the appropriate care to their clients and, in the process, continue to make a difference in their lives.