One of the comments I often hear when I tell people what I do is ‘Oh, I could never be a psychologist. Don’t you find it exhausting, listening to people’s problems all day long?’ If you’re in a work place where you make a connection with your clients, and you’re a naturally empathic person, you can easily be affected when you hear of troubles in your client’s lives. This can be a problem for a wider range of workers than you might think - anyone who engages with a person repeatedly over a period of time and gets to see or hear about the uglier side of their life either as part of their work, or as a side effect of their main job, can be affected. It can happen to coffee shop workers, lawyers, teachers, accountants, doctors, hairdressers and of course, psychologists. If it happens too often for too long, it can affect your ability to do your job properly, and even impact on your personal life. When you take on other people’s stressors, you leave no room to cope with your own. In the helping professions, this exhaustion from caring too much is called compassion fatigue.
During my training, and in every work place I’ve been in since, psychologists are constantly being reminded: don’t take your work home with you. We do workshops about it, we listen to seminars on it, we are even mandated to discuss difficult clients with colleagues as part of our professional development requirements (in a non-identifying way, of course, confidentiality still reigns supreme). I forget that other people don’t get these reminders. But we all need to know how to leave work at work, even when your work involves real people with real problems. Here are my best tips for avoiding compassion fatigue.
Take Care of Yourself First
You’re in no position to help anyone else if all you do is work, in the mistaken belief this is the best way to help your clients. You get exhausted, which leads to making mistakes which can end up hurting rather than helping. Maintaining a balanced lifestyle where you give to yourself, so that you have something to give to others, is critical. This means focussing on the five basics: getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising regularly, making time to socialise, and doing something nice for you, just because you like it, each and every day.
Plan for Tomorrow
It’s better to leave work fifteen minutes late, prepared for the next day than to leave in a rush and then be plagued by thoughts of work when you finish. If a person’s problems are bothering you, write down an action plan to work on tomorrow before you leave, or allocate time in your work schedule the next day to think about their issues. That way, you don’t feel obligated to keep thinking and planning and worrying about them once you leave, as you know they’ll be taken care of tomorrow.
Shut the Door On It
When you leave work for the day, as you’re exiting the building, set the intention to close the door on work-related thoughts. If you have to work at home as well, keep set times for it and allow yourself to not mull over problems before or after this time. Even if you’re on call/email, you can choose to stop the work-related thoughts once you put your phone back down. Once you set the intention and allow yourself to stop thinking about work when not at work, you give your mind and body a break from the stress.
Get It Out
If you find yourself emotionally affected by what a client has said, express your feelings. It may be possible to do this with co-workers without breaking the client’s trust, but if not, write them out. I often do this in my case notes if I have strong feelings after a session. I write down all I thought and felt, and then do another work task before reviewing the note and deleting 90% of what I wrote. You don’t even need to save the note, and there is then no trace of confidential information. Writing allows you to process your strong emotions by expressing them, allowing you to move through the issue.
Do What You’re Good At
Ultimately, your client is not paying you to fix their problems. Even if you’re a psychologist, your job is not to fix another person’s life: It’s to provide information, insight or empathy that allows them to make changes and move forward - of their own accord, in their own life. The best thing you can do for your client is to do your job well, so that this is one area of their life they don’t need to worry about. Understand that feeling bad for the person does not help them, or change their situation in any way. If you really want to make a change for them, you must take action – fretting and empathising does nothing to help them and everything to hurt you.
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If you’re worried you might be suffering from compassion fatigue, then make an appointment to discuss how to apply these strategies, and others, in your own life. Call me on 0421 720 635 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.