Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Compassion Fatigue

I learned a new term for burnout today: Compassion Fatigue. I usually don't get technical in my posts but I will give the actual definition. It refers to a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among victims of trauma and individuals that work directly with victims of trauma. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self doubt. The condition is also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Thank you Wikipedia.)

Learning about this condition made me think of my former life in a large corporate law firm and of the lives of so many people that I know working in corporate America. They may not experience these symptoms because of working with people who have experienced trauma, but they certainly experience most if not all of these symptoms. The so called detrimental effects described how I felt nearly every day in my old job. The interesting distinction is that in my new job, efforts are made to treat this condition whereas my superiors in my old job often seemed to have a vested interest in making sure you stayed mired in most of the symptoms. There are a couple of exceptions. Anything that leads to a decrease in productivity leads to a decrease in profit, so that wouldn't be tolerated. Its not that they would encourage treatment but more that they would cut your salary or get rid of you all together. As for the inability to focus...well, it depends. If you can't focus on anything but work, that's fine. No one cares about your home life but if you can't focus on work, that's a problem.

I understand why I am just learning about compassion fatigue. Its a term unique to the social services/social change industry. But, in a world where most of us seem to be suffering from a stress disorder bought on by work, family, relationships, or otherwise, why am I just hearing about the need for treatment and just meeting a supervisor who takes time to process issues with their employees so as to try to prevent the condition in the first place? We have all seen the sporadic Today Show, 20/20, and Nightline reports telling us that stress can cause (among other things) depression, diabetes, hair loss, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder, sexual dysfunction, tooth and gum disease, ulcers and possibly cancer. Yet, we keep showing up for the abuse on a daily basis. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that we should all quit our jobs and make a mass exodus to Walden Pond to decompress. I am suggesting that most jobs should provide some sort of way for their employees to decompress beyond paying for perks like yoga sessions in the office or free cookies in the break room. If our marriage is failing, we can go to counseling or get a divorce. If our friends are stressing us out, we can cut them off. But if we work in a toxic environment, we are stuck...especially in this economy. There really should be a neutral place for employees to discuss their burnout without the fear of being fired, left out of new assignments or being moved from the career track to the lame duck track. If we really believe that paychecks are wages for work as opposed to a purchase price for your life, then change has to take place. It doesn't seem revolutionary to me...just logical.

Growth Headache

Working in a career focused on social justice/societal change has given me a growth headache. It sounds a bit negative but it is truly a good thing. The issues that I didn't pay attention to before (beyond the occasional "that's so sad") now consume hours of my time. Its not just about counseling and outreach. Its learning (truly learning) about history (full and honest...not 6th grade social studies and 7th grade units on WWI and WWII) and how it has shaped society. I have spent so much time challenging my own ideas and talking through the analysis with others that I've had a headache for days. The bright side is that I'm growing. You know those little sponge creatures that start out tiny but grow exponentially when you put them in water? That's the best way for me to explain what's going on with me. Most importantly, I feel like there's purpose in all of this. It goes beyond clients. It's grooming me. I'm on a path that I couldn't have planned. In giving up some control and just going with what's in front of me, I have learned so much about myself. I've also healed the scars left by my previous work experience. In doing so, I've cleared a path and found a new road-one that I am happy to travel now that I have unloaded some of the baggage from my former life.