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Stopping the Stress: Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

I spent several years in college as a volunteer working with at-risk youth and addiction programs. I grew up watching the havoc addiction wreaked on the lives of people I knew. My best friend’s father was a heroin user who would disappear for weeks at a time when we were in junior high. She’d spend that time with my family, not knowing where he was. He tried rehab several times throughout his life but ultimately died from health complications due to drug use. His erratic behavior left a lasting impression on me and made me want to help people who suffered from such a terrible burden. 

When I graduated from college, I landed a coveted position for one of the largest live-in rehabilitation centers in my area, serving women and children. Although the pay wasn’t wonderful and it was painfully understaffed, I thought I’d found my dream job. 

I truly felt passionate about assisting clients: doing in-take interviews, taking them to doctor, dental and court appointments, one-on-one sessions, or just teaching classes. I can sincerely say that most of the clients appreciated the help they were receiving. Yes, some people were court-mandated and others were trying to figure out how to sneak in drugs and alcohol, but overall there was a sense of hope in a few of these women. 

However, my positive thinking model was at odds with the upper management and some of the other staff members. My 36-hour work weeks (full time) were suddenly 45-50-hour weeks, and basic needs such as days off, self-care, and sick days were gone. Support for clinicians was nonexistent – I was attacked by a client who later committed suicide. The head of the program tried to imply that it was partly my fault due to the fact she was removed from the program for violently assaulting me.

That, coupled with the outbreak of Covid-19, was the final straw for me. Like so many other clinicians, I felt overwhelmed by the virus and the normal day-to-day stress. For the first time in my life, I understood what burnout was. With no support for the compassion fatigue/burnout I was suffering from, I turned in my two-week resignation letter and was fired on the spot. After years of working there, I was “… no longer a good fit for the company and not eligible for hire at any of their other facilities.” 

I hadn’t ever been fired from a job, but at that moment I didn’t feel bad or angry; I just felt immense relief. I had been so focused on helping others for so long that I had forgotten to help myself. 

There will be trauma when you work in mental health. Sometimes when you feel particularly stressed and overwhelmed, it isn’t reasonable to handle it alone.

The author writes

As I have moved on, I have often looked back at this point and thought, “What should we do differently? What type of support do clinicians need now?” I asked myself and others in the mental health community for their input, and these are the best recommendations:

Practice Self-care

As mental health services providers, we know this; it’s been said time and time again. But regarding doing it, we often feel bad or selfish about it. Honoring your own needs such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, sound sleep, and work-personal life balance are all ways to combat burnout and compassion fatigue. Make sure you create time for yourself and allow for a work-life balance.

Set Boundaries 

Mental health workers have to have boundaries to protect themselves and not feel overwhelmed by the trauma of the job. Don’t give out your cell phone number to clients, if they have an after-hours emergency, they can call the on-call therapist or 911. You are a separate person and have your own life and your own needs. 

Healthy Workplace Strategies 

Find out what type of workplace strategy the company has, and you’ll find out what kind of company it is. If the employer does not have any in place, consider suggesting setting up one. Things that have been proven to help are regularly scheduled breaks, daily check-ins, mental health days for workers, childcare, and the availability of onsite counseling services, to name a few.

Personal Therapy/counseling 

There will be trauma when you work in mental health. Sometimes when you feel particularly stressed and overwhelmed, it isn’t reasonable to handle it alone. A good therapist can help provide insight, process, and give you tools to enhance the quality and balance between work and personal life. Compassion fatigue can lead to more serious problems, such as depression and anxiety if left untreated. 

At this time, I have retired from mental health. I’m happy to say that I am enjoying life again and no longer feeling the emotional distress of burnout or compassion fatigue. My current mantra: I am a work in progress. I’m learning how to manage, and be the healthiest, happiest person I can be. 

Ms. Kristy Conn is an experienced mental health counselor in both Severe and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI) and drug & alcohol rehabilitation. You can view her full bio here.

Ms. Kristy Conn is an experienced mental health counselor in both Severe and Persistent Mental Illness (SPMI) and drug & alcohol rehabilitation. You can view her full bio here.

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