Both 2020 and 2021 have been very challenging years for the care sector. Staff have been working long hours, dealing with distressing and sometimes frightening situations sometimes resulting in compassion fatigue. Yet they must continue to provide care and support care home residents and their families amidst unprecedented challenges. Government guidance is available to point carers towards resources and advice to help, however there is still plenty that employers can do to support their valued care home staff.
Look Out for Signs of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is the draining of emotional, physical and cognitive energy in, for example, care home staff, that makes it much harder for them to feel genuine empathy or compassion for those in their care. It can manifest itself in changes in mood and behaviour, with more extreme cases demonstrating anger, burnout or nightmares. Lesser symptoms are no less concerning, and include sadness, tiredness, avoiding duties or contact, loss of focus or concentration, headaches, digestive problems, insomnia and feelings of detachment.
Compassion fatigue happens when individuals become exhausted from their work and demands of their role. It is especially prone to people working in high-pressure environments, such as a residential care home in the middle of a global pandemic.
It is all too easy to see how a working environment like this can lead to people experiencing stress and trauma and then compassion fatigue as they shut down to cope with their own feelings of tiredness and worry. The longer someone is exposed to other people in medical or other need, the more ‘normal’ it will feel to the carer, which can then develop into compassion fatigue.
If you are concerned about compassion fatigue among your care home staff, there is plenty you can do to support those affected. A good place to start is to ask your staff directly how they feel they are coping. This will help you judge not only individual reactions, but the overall mood among the wider care home community. Some questions could include:
1. How hopeful do you feel about your work?
2. Do your residents’ medical conditions and other problems affect you personally?
3. Can you recover easily from your working day at the end of it?
4. Do you feel that your work is having a meaningful impact on those for whom you care?
5. Are you able to complete your own personal business and life admin?
6. Do you have a good relationship with family members and friends, or do you find yourself withdrawing from them?
7. Has your use of alcohol or drugs altered?
8. How well are you sleeping?
If someone is giving troubling responses to the questions above, it is time to act to help support them through their compassion fatigue. Talk to them about how they are feeling and what they think might help them feel better. Think about the different aspects of mood, physical condition, behaviour and emotions to create an individual self-care and wellbeing plan. Everyone will react differently to different ideas, but some self-care options could include:
1. Commit to eating more healthily
2. Cut down on alcohol or drug use
3. Seek counselling or therapy
4. Spend more time with cherished friends and family outside of work
5. Watch favourite films, read optimistic books and listen to uplifting music
6. Change working shift patterns to find a better balance
7. Make your home warm and welcoming to return to after a day at work
8. Keep a diary to let out any negative feelings on paper or screen
9. Choose a buddy at work with whom you can check in with – and vice versa
10. Go to bed at a sensible time after a calming bedtime routine
11. Identify and embrace your emotions without trying to deny or feel guilty about them
12. Do more sport or physical exercise to get the energy pumping
13. Plan fun activities for your leave periods
Above all, encourage your care home staff to keep strong boundaries at work and not to let anyone break them without their permission – they need to put themselves first! This may seem counterintuitive to losing compassion fatigue. However, if you don’t keep some energy back for yourself to help you cope, you won’t be able to give anything to others.
Advise your people to aim not to get too close to those they are caring for emotionally, but rather remain objective and aware of their practical and healthcare needs instead. This gives a far more manageable focus and a clear end point to the care that can be provided during any shift.