The Trauma Lines Blog

Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists

Conference Preview: “Burned out – How I learned about the cost of caring”

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We have a rare treat for our readers: a presenter at ATSS’ 2010 conference — Safely in Our Hands:  Helping Our Helpers Stay Healthy — has agreed to provide us with a short preview of the topic she will be presenting on.

Compassion Fatigue Specialist Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC. , has agreed to give us a sample of what you can look forward to at this year’s conference. Essentially, the following contribution by Françoise Mathieu speaks to the essence of what this year’s conference in Toronto is all about: keeping our “helpers” — those who have dedicated themselves to helping others — healthy. 

The following article, “Burned out – How I learned about the cost of caring,” was originally published in the Open Mind Newspaper, 2010:

In the late 1990s I started working at a university counselling centre as a crisis counsellor and worked there for seven years. As a crisis worker, I was exposed to a very high volume of clients and with an incredible range of life issues– from complex sexual abuse stories that the clients had never disclosed before, to survivors of war traumas, to people coming for help in the middle of a full psychotic episode. Drastic province-wide budget cuts also meant that referral resources in the community were dwindling and I was often left dealing with highly complex problems with very few resources.

During my first few years as a crisis worker, I did not really notice that I was being profoundly affected by my work. I enjoyed what I did, yet I often felt exhausted both physically and emotionally at the end of my day. I often avoided social events and did not return calls from friends. I also started having a twisted view of the world – when you hear terrible stories all day, you start seeing the world as a terrible place.

During my final two years at the counselling service, I was increasingly irritable with my colleagues. I resented the fact that they took lunch breaks while I was working nonstop, and I felt angry at the cheerful and positive attitude of our support staff.

This emotional exhaustion and irritability with coworkers can be symptoms of compassion fatigue, a specialized form of burnout that can affect helping professionals. Interestingly, research shows that individuals in the early stages of compassion fatigue work harder rather than less. They can appear to be the most dedicated of staff, take on extra responsibilities, come to work early and leave late.

Helpers with early compassion fatigue often describe feeling overwhelmed with the workload, and say they have great difficulty setting limits and going home at the end of a shift. They often worry about their patients/clients and sometimes feel guilty about going home to a better environment than their clients’ own situations.

The reality for most helping professionals is also that we are doing more work with less and less resources. It can be very difficult to send someone away who is clearly in need but for whom we have nothing to offer. I was turning people away on a daily basis in my work as a crisis counsellor, and that was probably the most difficult aspect of my job. It felt completely contradictory to my reasons for choosing this line of work.

I have now been in the field for nearly twenty years, and I love my work more than ever. What I have learned is that several key elements need to be in place for me to keep doing a good job without being damaged by the work: I need to exercise regularly, I need enough sleep, I need to see a mixture of clients and not face the same type of issues day in and day out. I try to limit my direct time with clients to three days a week as often as possible, in order to have a day to read and prepare workshops and another day to recuperate and renew myself.

As a result of these experiences, I started researching strategies to deal with compassion fatigue and burnout. I have spent the past decade educating other helpers about the risks associated with compassion fatigue and burnout. Data shows that compassion fatigue is something that happens to helpers because they care – it is not a sign of weakness or incompetence. We must open our hearts in order to help others, but we must also develop ways to protect ourselves so that we can stay healthy while remaining in this challenging and rewarding field.

For more on Françoise Mathieu, be sure to check out her blog CompassionFatigueSolutions.Blogspot.Com.

Questions for Françoise? Leave a comment below and we’ll be sure to pass them on.


One Response

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  1. […] did a more in-depth preview of Françoise Mathieu’s presentation back in April. Click here to read […]

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