The Toll of Compassion Fatigue on Government Employees

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Traumas can be contagious. When public sector workers are exposed to endless stories of pain, they can develop mental health and other problems.

Janeen Haller-Abernethy, director of the Colorado Employee Assistance Program, worries about the therapists on her staff experiencing emotional distress after hearing many stories of personal suffering from state employees who come for counseling.

“There’s a lot of stress that you carry as a provider when you are exposed to other people’s trauma,” she says.  

The results of that strain on emotional well-being–also referred to as compassion fatigue–has become a widespread topic of conversation during the lingering pandemic and was recently added to a list of mental health assessed concerns that will be part of a new EAP medical records system in Colorado. 

Compassion fatigue is one particularly debilitating way in which public sector workers experience employee burnout, a topic about which we wrote in Route Fifty nearly a year ago. Employees who suffer from compassion fatigue may see their relationships with family or friends suffer. It can accompany and potentially amplify other mental health issues, manifesting itself as anxiety or depression. 

Typically, the malady often results in declines in job performance. Sleep and motivation may be affected, with employees feeling disconnected from the work they do. “There’s a numbness to the work that you’re engaging in—a difficulty in connecting with the people you’re tasked with helping,” says Haller-Abernethy.

“All of these things were heightened in the pandemic,” says Brenda Sciepura. A researcher at the People Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. When the demands of clients multiply and caseloads increase, as has been the case ever since Covid-19 first burst into the headlines, so does a worker’s vulnerability to compassion fatigue.

This emotional problem is most likely to affect people whose jobs require direct involvement with clients who are exposed to traumatic situations. This includes counselors, teachers, social workers, nurses, doctors, police officers and firefighters. 

Even employees who are in remote contact with traumatized clients, like 911 dispatchers, benefit administrators in social service agencies or unemployment offices, can become victims. 

In 2020, the People Lab surveyed public sector employees in one large city and in a large state agency. It found 21% of public sector workers in general were experiencing high levels of compassion fatigue, compared to a study 15 years ago in which the incidence was just short of 16%. 

For frontline workers during the pandemic, the People Lab found the incidence was 25%. Compassion fatigue rates were higher in some agencies than others, with 32% of corrections officers suffering from compassion fatigue, compared with 27% of human service workers, 24% of individuals in unemployment offices and 19% within police departments. 

Not a New Phenomenon

Though the number of people affected by compassion fatigue has grown during the pandemic, it’s not a new phenomenon. In the mid-1990s, compassion fatigue was described by Tulane University professor Charles R. Figley, an author of many books and articles about the subject, as “the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.” The topic has been studied by psychologists and other mental health professionals for years. 

In 2011, for example, Deborah Boyle, a consultant with special emphasis on nurse well-being, wrote a journal article called “Countering Compassion Fatigue: A Requisite Nursing Agenda.” At the time, she noted that compassion fatigue, particularly as it related to nurses, was under recognized and under researched, and she still believes that’s the case. While the pandemic intensified awareness of these problems, she says there are too few resources, too little organizational attention, and only sporadic efforts to integrate training on this topic in nursing education.

Haller-Abernethy is particularly empathetic with employees suffering from compassion fatigue, having experienced it herself. She was willing to share her story with us as a way to help others who are experiencing its symptoms.

Her story began about 20 years ago when she worked for a nonprofit grassroots domestic violence program. The lack of community resources to help and the relentless heart-rending experiences she heard about every day started to wear on her. Her associated feelings of anxiety and depression began to take a toll on her relationship with her husband and young children. After six years in the field, she quit the job and began to see a therapist. 

“Everyone’s trauma is unique,” she says, “but when you’re chronically exposed to similar information, there’s a feeling of hopelessness and a feeling that the problems are unsolvable.”

Promising Approaches

There are some promising advances, however. One example is a triage approach that starts with a provision of materials and toolkits to staff, and moves on to check-ins, one-on-one clinical help and referrals for longer-term treatment, if needed. It was developed by Yale University professors for use at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, with presentations, as well, to mental health professionals outside of the state.

While employees may be reluctant or embarrassed to express these feelings, experts say that openly talking about compassion fatigue helps workers recognize that they are not alone. As a result, one of the most important ways to overcome it is to avoid the temptation to ignore that something is clearly wrong. 

“Not everyone knows what compassion fatigue is,” says Sciepura. “They only know that they’re frustrated or tired. And most times they hesitate to talk to their supervisors about it because it might make them appear weak or not fit for the job.”  

If a Colorado EAP therapist appears to be adversely affected by the repetitive exposure to other people’s problems, Haller-Abernethy will sometimes encourage a break from counseling–shifting the employee to a special project or consulting role. She has also engaged her team in identifying self-care strategies. 

For the staff as a whole, she brought in a speaker to talk about compassion fatigue and the importance of self-care, and she regularly keeps her staff of therapists informed about Colorado mental health benefits that are available to them.

While the EAP provides mental health and other assistance services to other Colorado employees, it has a contract with a private EAP to serve its employees.

“We’re the mental health providers, but we have our own struggles. We’re humans too,” she says. “There’s an ethical duty to take care of yourself, so you can be available to your clients.”

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene of Barrett and Greene, Inc. are columnists and senior advisers to Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: Food Delivery Workers Won New Protections in New York City. Can the State Keep Up?

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