Posted on Apr 19th, 2006

This one is for all those folks who are in what is called "the helping professions." Although I am sure I will leave someone out, and my apologies in advance, this list includes teachers, doctors, nurses, guidance counselors, therapists, psychologists speech pathologists, and emergency personnel.

This category simply includes any profession in which caring for others is part of the job.

Whiloe all jobss can be stressful at times, there is a special kind of stress that affects those in the helping professions. Simply stated, there is an emotional cost to caring. There is a certain weariness that all of us struggle with from time to time.

The feeling I’m talking about was once called burnout. In recent years, Charles Figley, director of the Psychosocial Stress Research and Development Program at Florida State University, has coined the term "compassion fatigue."

This concept seems to capture more clearly what people in the helping professions can sometimes experience.

According to Figley, "Compassion stress is the discomfort and preoccupation with clients or customers who are stricken by suffering or misfortune. And `compassion fatigue,’ a form of burnout, is the inability to function effectively as a result of being overwhelmed by compassion stress."

Or as one colleague aptly put it, "I’ve got the fatigue; I just don’t have the compassion right now."

Signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue

• Preoccupation with work. You just can’t stop thinking or talking about it.

• Sleep difficulties.

• Overwork or avoidance of work.

• A sense of futility about your work. "It doesn’t really matter." • Anxiety and depression.

• A feeling of weariness about what you do.

What you can do about it

Here’s a partial list, from Figley and myself, on what to do about this special kind of stress.

• Be gentle with yourself and take good care of yourself.

• Remind yourself about, and talk about, your successes. This can help provide the proper perspective.

• Re-evaluate your expectations and signs of success.

• Remind yourself why you chose this profession in the first place. Recall the passion and commitment it took to get where you are now.

• Set proper limits to separate home and work issues.

• Exercise regularly.

• Consider the possibility of getting out. As someone once said, "If it’s hurting you, it can’t possibly be helping someone else." If you can’t get past the hurt, it may be time to move on.

• Spend time with supportive people.

• As much as possible, vary and expand what you do.

I guess the bottom line is that while you are taking care of others, it’s crucial to remember to take care of yourself.

And I’ll close with this story: A man is walking on the beach one day and notices thousands of starfish being washed ashore. Against overwhelming odds, he begins throwing them back in. A stranger walks up and says, "Why are you doing this? You’ll never get all these back in the water; you’re wasting your time. What does it matter anyway?"

The man picks up another starfish, throws it back into the water and replies, "It matters to this one."

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