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DCoE Webinar Rewind:

Fortify Caregivers to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

Two service members seated on sofas, talking
U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jason Kemp

Compassion fatigue is a natural occurrence that may affect health care providers and the quality of care they provide to patients, a professor of social work said in a psychological health webinar hosted last month by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Brian E. Bride, a professor of social work at Georgia State University and editor in chief of “Traumatology: An International Journal,” outlined the risks of compassion fatigue. Bride also explained strategies caregivers can apply to minimize its impact on their mental states and on the care they provide.

Compassion fatigue occurs in caregivers who regularly treat patients who have experienced trauma. This secondhand trauma can produce symptoms identical to those of posttraumatic stress disorder, including intrusive thoughts, irritability, loss of emotional control and loss of concentration. These symptoms may affect providers’ ability to respond to patients.

Recent studies of health care providers indicate that close to half of providers experience compassion fatigue and a significant portion say it negatively affects their work.

There are several factors that can place providers at higher risk for compassion fatigue. These include if they see a large number of patients or have many patients with trauma, if the provider himself has personally had trouble dealing with trauma, or if he struggles with burnout due to heavy work responsibilities and inadequate time, energy or support.

While providers’ empathy may put them at risk of compassion fatigue, it can also help them manage its impact, Bride said. When properly regulated, empathy can help providers avoid secondhand trauma.

“[Empathy] is a necessary part of what we do,” Bride said. “There are ways we can engage and deal with it in a way that it doesn't put us at risk but is actually protective.”

Minimizing Fatigue

Bride said providers will be able to demonstrate compassion for patients while lowering their risk for fatigue in four ways:

  • Respond appropriately to patients’ confidences. A provider should be able to react to a patient’s story in a way that helps the patient.
  • Regulate their own emotions: A provider must be able to control emotions that may be brought up by interacting with patients with trauma. The ability to prevent these feelings from becoming a constant in a provider’s personal life will help prevent compassion fatigue.
  • See the patient’s perspective. Providers must put themselves in a patient’s place to best understand their reaction to trauma and decide on the proper course of treatment.
  • Maintain a separation from the patient. While a provider must be able to understand a patient’s point of view to successfully treat him, it is important to be able to step away from that experience outside the workplace and maintain an emotional distance.

Providers can also minimize the impact of fatigue on their lives and the treatment they provide by ensuring they work in a supportive environment. It is important for a provider’s mental health to maintain good relationships with peers and supervisors. If a provider has reliable colleagues who offer tangible help in accomplishing tasks and discussing challenges, the risk for compassion fatigue is reduced.

“Compassion fatigue is a normal and expected experience,” Bride said. “You have to know there are limits to it. If you're not taking care of yourself you can’t continue the work you are doing.”

The full webinar, “Combating Compassion Fatigue,” is available on the DCoE website, with links to resources on second-hand trauma and the treatment options available.

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This page was last updated on: September 14, 2017.