Compassion fatigue – are you at risk?

Caregiver or compassion fatigue is the sense of extreme emotional and physical exhaustion experienced by healthcare workers in times of crisis.

As Harsha Maharaj, a clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Sandton, explains, caregiver fatigue is caused when healthcare workers are placed under tremendous amounts of strain and are required to work under extraordinary circumstances. “The current COVID-19 pandemic is one example,” she says. “Due to the ever-changing environment regarding the treatment of patients, the risk of infection and the anxieties surrounding this, you will find yourself not only having to deal with the health and anxiety of your patients and families, but also your own fears of exposure to the virus and concerns about keeping your own families safe.”

Compassion fatigue is categorised as a state of physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion, as a result of continuously caring for other people. As a healthcare worker, you spend your time caring for others, putting their wellbeing and comfort above your own. Although this is noble, when you neglect your own needs, you are likely to feel exhausted and irritable.

Maharaj adds that warning signs that you might be suffering from this condition include (but are not limited to) feeling overwhelmed and anxious; feeling guilty for being away from your family and feeling guilty about possibly exposing your family to the virus. “It is also important to remember that if you have a pre-existing psychiatric diagnosis, you may be more susceptible to caregiver fatigue, especially under the current circumstances,” she cautions.

Do any of these apply to you?

  • You are unusually irritable and “snappy”.
  • You feel irrationally angry at times.
  • You experience feelings of sadness, helplessness, and depression.
  • You are turning to alcohol or other substances to “unwind”.
  • You have a hard time falling or staying asleep.
  • You have experienced changes in appetite.
  • You find yourself unmotivated or uninterested in daily activities.
  • You can’t relax even when you’re off duty.

Maharaj suggests the following steps to alleviate some of your symptoms:

1.     Understand that the emotions you are feeling are normal under the abnormal situation that is currently being faced.

2.     Acknowledge that your colleagues are also experiencing the same/similar emotions and talk to each other about this.

3.     Acknowledge and understand that some routines and structures will change but  that it’s important to take time off for yourself – even if it’s just 30 minutes a day.

4.     Find tangible coping strategies – Mindfulness exercises, such as breathing, can be quite useful as they can be practised anywhere. They will help ground you in the present moment and reduce the sense of anxiety.

5.     Be kind to yourself – understand that you cannot be everything to everyone all of the time and that we are all trying to figure this out.