Compassion fatigue: what is it and what to do about it
RACHEL DOHERTY
Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen
If you’re a youth worker, expect to face compassion fatigue sometime. Keep it at bay with good self-care habits, including supervision.

If you work with people long enough in a helping role, you’ll find you get to a point where their stories don’t hurt so much. That’s a good thing that can help you stay mentally fit in this job!

But there’s a flipside to youth work, or any helping profession, that you can feel overwhelmed by people’s experiences. That you take on their trauma and pain and feel the need to fix everything. Left untreated, that can lead to burnout.

“The dew of compassion is a tear.”

LORD BYRON

I’ve written other articles on burnout. From what things youth workers do that move them towards burnout, to what you can do to overcome it. This article looks at compassion fatigue as one of those things that can lead to burnout.

The good news is that like burnout, you can do something about compassion fatigue before it pushes you out of a job.

What compassion fatigue is

Compassion fatigue is just that. A weariness of hearing the sad stories of others. It’s where you’ve been so compassionate for so long, that you feel burdened by what others have gone through.

People who develop compassion fatigue have lost the ability to listen to stories without feeling like part of it themselves. The feelings and thoughts of the people you work with become your own emotions and worries. The more caring you are to start with, the more vulnerable you are to compassion fatigue.

So if you know you have a soft heart, or one that’s already weakened, it’s important to get busy guarding it.

What every youth worker can do to prevent compassion fatigue

There are warning signs of compassion fatigue. Waking up in the middle of the night worrying about someone you’re working with is one. Overwhelming tears or anger after you see them is another. If you feel you’re carrying your client’s burdens, or their experiences stir your own story, do something about it.

“Our human compassion binds us to one another – not in pity or patronisingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to our common suffering into hope for the future.” – Nelson Mandela

Deal with your own demons

We all have our own story that makes us who we are. Most people who end up in the helping professions have a story that includes some pain or trauma. If those things aren’t resolved, get yourself some counselling and work through them.

To support young people to deal with issues in their life, we need to be people of integrity who have worked through our own. Dealing with issues is hard

Dealing with issues is hard work, and soul-baring. It requires introspection and the impartial judgment of feelings and thoughts. But how can we expect young people to be this brave if we can’t ourselves?

Practice self-care

Self-care sounds like something that we should do if we get everything else done. Don’t you think? Somewhere after the paperwork and tidying your desk. And that’s how a lot of youth workers treat it.

But self-care is a lot like brushing your teeth. If you’re lucky you can get away without it, but if you do it a bit each day, it can pay off in the long run. And it’s easy to create as a habit.

Self-care is essential to preventing burnout. It’s about reflecting on your work, being intentional in what professional development you do and making time for yourself.

The important part of making self-care part of your life is to plan for it. And there are four things you should include in your self-care plan:

  1. Time to rest. Hit that couch or go to bed early and give your body permission to stop. We all need a break now and then, with room to do nothing.
  1. Time to recover. Do things that make you feel good. Those things that give your life meaning and a sense of peace.
  1. Time to rejig. Make tweaks in your life that keep it feeling balanced. This can often be as simple as working out what to say “yes” to, and what to give a “no”.
  1. Time to refresh. Do something fun now and then that fills your bucket of joy to the brim.

Get supervision

Your wellbeing as a youth worker requires you to keep your job as a job. Not your life. Seeing a professional supervisor isn’t about admitting weakness. It’s about keeping your personal experiences separate from your professional ones. And about making sure you’re mentally and emotionally fit for the work. You wouldn’t head into a marathon

Seeing a professional supervisor isn’t about admitting weakness. It’s about keeping your personal experiences separate from your professional ones. And about making sure you’re mentally and emotionally fit for the work. You wouldn’t head into a marathon

You wouldn’t head into a marathon after sitting on the couch for a year. You’d get some coaching and work up your strength and endurance, week after week. The helping professions need the same approach. Making time for regular supervision sessions to unpack your experiences with young people and how they rub up against you. Your values, experiences, opinions, and expectations.

If you don’t have a current supervisor, then have a look around. But be discerning. A good supervisor should be well qualified, offer something more than counselling and get the context you work in. Have a look at my article on the 10 qualities to look for if you’re starting the hunt for a supervisor.

If you’re interested, you can find out more about my supervision service, or book in a session today.

Compassion fatigue doesn’t need to be part of your story as a youth worker, provided you look after yourself. Like most good things in life, preventing compassion fatigue is about building good habits and practicing them week after week.

Have you faced compassion fatigue? What things work for you in keeping it at bay?

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