Main Content

Understanding caring and compassion fatigue

Understanding caring and compassion fatigue

Psychologist Anastasia Goussios. Photography by Paul Jeffers.

After six years as a psychologist in South Australia’s prisons, then many years more listening to difficult personal stories while counselling in rural and remote areas and in the corporate world, Anastasia Goussios found herself emotionally exhausted.

It was fatigue that seemed to overwhelm all else, but it was not burn-out. Listening to other peoples’ stories about trauma, providing her time and her empathy to help her clients heal, had left the professional psychologist with compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

‘That’s when I discovered that many people on the front-line of this work were also suffering, and they had not heard about compassion fatigue,’ Ms Goussios says. ‘So part of my recovery journey is to raise awareness of compassion fatigue and to teach people how to look after themselves.’

To that end, Ms Goussios will be the key presenter at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (Vic Branch)’s forthcoming conference on Psychological Hazards in Healthcare, where she will run a 90-minute workshop explaining the differences between burn-out, vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.

While burn-out arises from poor or dysfunctional resourcing within an organisation, work overload and lack of support, and vicarious trauma stems from observing other peoples’ suffering, Ms Goussios says compassion fatigue is the result of a person giving their own emotional support to others. It’s a condition that comes from caring.

The symptoms of all three always overlap, she says. But it is important to define the source of those symptoms – to differentiate between the three conditions – to ensure the problem is properly identified and corrected, and to understand why one person might be more at risk than another.

‘If we have our own story, our own stresses, and they have not been dealt with, then the nature of the work we do can trigger these issues,’ Ms Goussios says.

‘But one of the biggest risks is when the organisation (employers) does not recognise that the nature of the work they do is putting their workers at risk – when the organisation does not understand the risk and does not put in place structures and plans to alleviate the risks.’

There must be a multi-pronged focus to reduce the risk of compassion fatigue, she says. The first involves the organisation understanding its responsibilities and, especially, the nature of the work and the risks inherent in its employees’ tasks.

Leaders within those organisations have a responsibility to demonstrate self-care, to understand the characteristics of the work done by people in their charge, and to put structures in place that will keep employees healthy.

Colleagues also play a vital role, but individuals need to be aware of their responsibilities and the risks that they could be vulnerable to compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or burn-out.

‘All this is important so that they can be the best they can be for their whole life, because we are more than just our work,’ she says. ‘And, when it comes to compassion fatigue, know we are here and you are not alone. This is a psychological hazard. It is not a personal defect.’