Self-Care and Compassion Fatigue in Staff


We each have our own capacities of mental, emotional and physical well being, which vary from person to person and day to day. If we think of our capacity as a cup, which can be emptied or filled, then self-care is both our attention to and acceptance of the size of our cup, as well as our attention to and balancing of the things in the day that are withdrawing from and replenishing our cup.

The things that empty and fill our cup are personal and will differ between us (e.g., for some of us quiet time in is most replenishing, for others getting out with a group of people is replenishing) and it may take some time to get to know what those things are. At the same time, there are some experiences that are a bit more universal in their ability to empty or fill (e.g., having a sense of value and purpose and feeling loved and cared for are replenishing; feeling rejected, alone, and isolated are depleting).

woman practicing self careDuring this time, there are many stressors that are pulling from our cups: worry, fear, uncertainty, disruption of routine, learning new skills, balancing too many responsibilities at once; and now, with our usual routines and habits disrupted, we have also removed some the conscious or unconscious cup-filling activities we had built into our daily lives: time alone, time with friends, time with family, the gym, going out for lunch or dinner or drinks, the yoga studio, attending concerts or events, our favourite places, hobbies or recreational activities, vacation. With more stressors and less replenishers, we are sure to be feeling the imbalance of our cups, and re-balancing them will take some conscious effort. We need to examine our new normal, our current daily lives, and figure out what’s missing: what cup-filling activities do we need to build back in, and how might they need to look different? Can we even replicate some version of them?

If you are unsure what your cup-filling activities are, do not stress, you are not alone. Take some time to think about how you used to spend your day and week, from the detail of your routine when you woke up in the morning, to how you got to work, what your day looked like, all the way to your evening wind-down. As you review the various parts to your day and week, ask yourself, which of these things were replenishing to me? Which felt like a little inhale of energy, or a reduction of stress, or brought me joy? Often we think self-care means morning runs, meditation, or hours at the gym, but it doesn’t need to be, there are many small actions we take that fill our cup, for example, enjoying a catch-up chat and banter with our colleagues in the morning, a nice cup of coffee alone with our thoughts on break, a bike ride to work, a walk or fresh air at lunch, going out to dinner, watching sports, hugs from friends, anything that used to be a part of regular life that brought joy, energy, or calm.

Now thinking of these replenishing activities, ask yourself, which of these things have been disrupted and/or are missing right now? Have you replaced any of them in anyway? Are you able to? What may they look like in this time? Many of us have tried to adapt some of these things in various ways: moving our social hang outs to virtual formats, finding physical activities we can do at home or outside, and yet we may be finding that they are not the same, not as enjoyable and not as replenishing as they were in their former form. Remember to be gentle with yourself, compassionate and forgiving, as this is the new reality: filling our cup may be more challenging right now.

This means you may need to do some things more frequently, or try out a few different and new things before you find a better balance, it may also mean that many days are off balance. If you can, have someone trusted, a friend, partner, family member, colleague, counsellor, EAP, who you can share your struggle with, who can reassure and support you and remind you that you are doing ok and will be ok. Being seen and heard is cup filling. That said, also try to honour your experience and the experience of others – how each of us are doing and responding to this time may look very different from another, simply because the things we each find hard will be different, our situations before COVID 19 were different, and the set of circumstances we each find ourselves in now are different – we need not weigh and measure who has the harder situation – there are a variety of situations that are all hard in their own way and worthy of validation.

Even once the quarantine is over, getting back to normal will be a slow process, and this balance of our cups will have to be readjusted slowly over time. Try to manage your expectations, recognize that transition draws from your cup, and that you will need to continue to practice self-care as you move through this time, out of this time, and into your new normal. Because self-care is a practice, that never leaves us.

Self-Expectations and Self-Compassion

Social isolation brings out such a variety of emotions for me. The roller coaster has gone a little like this:

  • ‘Awesome, finally I don’t have to feel bad about not being social every weekend’
  • ‘Wow, I’m getting so much done’
  • ‘Supermarket delivery arrived! Should we order more chocolate and muffins next time?’
  • ‘Everything is irritating’
  • ‘I should be doing more in my down time’
  • ‘This is too much, how can I be expected to manage all of this?!’
  • ‘This life is okay, maybe I never need to leave this apartment’
  • ‘I so need out of this apartment!’

walking outside self careYou can see how these constantly changing emotions can get in the way of productivity, and that is ok. Social media and self-expectations can have us treating ourselves like our productive activity must always be constant, or that we should have any productive output at all. The reality is though, we only need to be as productive as our jobs and lives require at this moment. For some, this means foregoing online learning for the essential jobs of taking care of our families. For others, it means letting ourselves off the hook of study or socializing and laying down to watch a movie – every day if needed!/p>

We do not always need to be achieving. It is a time of change, and remember we are allowed to be how we need to be to get through social isolation and into whatever the new normal becomes for us.

Practicing Mindful Self-Compassion can really help us in managing our expectations, soothing ourselves and getting us through. Dr. Kristen Neff describes three components of self-compassion:

  1. Mindfulness – being present in the current moment, recognizing our feelings without judging, diminishing or over-exaggerating them (e.g., I am really struggling today and feel resentful to have so much expected of me).
  2. Kindness – extending kindness to ourselves, speaking to ourselves as we would a child, validating our experiences and soothing ourselves, rather than jumping in with our inner critic (e.g., it’s ok, it is really hard right now, this is too much, we’ll just take one thing at a time).
  3. Common Humanity – recognizing that to suffer is part of the human condition, we all suffer, and we will all experience pain, we are not unique or alone in our suffering and to struggle is not a sign of our defectiveness, but rather our humanness (e.g., lots of people are having a hard time right now, this would be difficult for anyone to manage).

To learn more about self-compassion, see Dr. Kristin Neff here, and check out some self-compassion meditative practices in the resource links below.

What types of emotions and thoughts are you having throughout this journey? Is there room to extend yourself some more compassion?

A special note on Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue, and its close cousin vicarious trauma are terms many of us in the human service sector are familiar with. When working in helping roles, roles that expose us regularly to the suffering of others, we can experience either of these. Françoise Mathieu in her Compassion Fatigue Workbook describes compassion fatigue as “…the profound emotional and physical exhaustion…gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others…our empathy our hope and our compassion.” She differentiates this from vicarious trauma, which she describes using Pearlman and Saakvitne’s definition “…the profound shift in world view…beliefs about the world are altered and possibly damaged by repeated exposure to traumatic material…unable to rid ourselves of the images and experiences.” reading at home with dog self careAnyone in the helping profession is vulnerable to these – any of us any where are really – but now is a time to pay closer attention than usual. While we all struggle with the changes of social distancing, with the increased worry and reduced outlets for self-care, we may be more dismissive of our struggles, attributing them to simply the stress of this time, when really something more serious is going on. Many of us are care giving in ways beyond what had been usual in our daily lives, taking care of clients, aging parents, children, elderly neighbours, and loved ones who are immunocompromised in an unprecedented and scary time, without a break and without the support we may otherwise have enlisted. This strain of managing the changes day by day, being responsible for so many needs at once, and holding the fear and suffering we and those around us are feeling is not ending anytime soon, and in fact may ramp up when we emerge from social distancing and start to interact more, bringing new fear of another wave of spread. While self-care is an important part of preventative and ongoing care related to compassion fatigue, both compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are very serious, and if experiencing them, you should seek professional help. You will get through this, but it is a tough road and some guidance and support from a trained professional is key. If you are in a position of leadership, be sure to really listen to your staff, check-in regularly, and to know, talk about and watch for the signs, so that you can help them identify and acquire the support they may need.
Written by LD Brooks & Mekaela Stevenson