Have you ever had a hard time leaving work at work? Have you ever given all the emotional juice you have to your job and you finally get home only to have work thoughts creep back into your consciousness? It can be a lot like dealing with that creepy clown with the red balloon from IT. You’re having a nice supper with your family and you go to the fridge and the creepy clown is sitting next to the broccoli ready to hand you a red balloon full of troubling thoughts about work. You load things in the dish washer and there he is again with another balloon you don’t need.
Later when you go for a walk, you leave the house and right next to the mailbox you see the creepy clown again. All of a sudden your thoughts go back to your day and all its unfinished business. You try like crazy to ignore the clown but he keeps coming back again and again. How do we fix this? How do we separate our challenging work from our precious time at home? Is there some magic technique to help us shut off the endless stream of work related thoughts that can pollute our time off?
I was running my workshop The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World for a group of caring professions and we were collaborating on ways of helping ourselves deal with stress and burnout. I asked “What specific challenges do you face?” The stakes were high for these highly skilled pros. They work in a beautiful but isolated community, their caseloads are heavy and burnout was starting to take its toll.
Somebody said “I have a hard time leaving work at work! I take all of these worries about my clients home with me!” I asked the group if this was a common problem and there were nods all around.
The room came alive and we immediately collaborated on solutions. One person said “After
a tough day I gather up all the files I’ve worked on, stick them in my filing cabinet and lock them up.” Somebody else offered, “I drive home by the lake and let myself think about work until I get to the end of the road and then I’m done!”
Somebody else said “I go for a really fast walk and when I get to a certain point, I act like I’m dropping all of my work troubles out on the road.” Another one was “I put all my papers away and then say goodbye to my plants, turn off the lights and I’m done!” What useful tool had we stumbled upon? Transition rituals! Transition rituals provide a definite end to our day and let us know that it’s OK to leave our concerns behind. We are creatures of habit after all and our brains like nothing better than following a pattern. So by using our transition ritual on a regular basis we get better at it. Our psyches embrace the idea that we have ended one part of our day and begun another. By using this technique and doing something after work as simple as going for a walk or driving down a certain road; we are literally training our brains to relax and to switch gears from one way of being to another. This can help us leave work at work so we can reduce our stress and chase away that evil creepy clown.
Here are some transition rituals that we came up with that day.
1: Go for a brisk walk after work.
2: Go to the gym and do a brief workout.
3: Have a specific way of leaving the office “Turnout the lights and say goodbye to the plants”
4: Say out loud, “I’m done playing in this sandbox. This can all wait until tomorrow”.
5: Say out loud “This is yours, not mine.”
6: Take a specific route home, allow yourself to think about work until you get to a certain point, then stop.
We all know that being in the caring professions takes a lot of skill, empathy and emotional juice. All of that giving can wear out our bodies and psyches. Transition rituals can be a useful tool to help keep the creepy clown away so we can recharge our batteries and give ourselves a chance to serve not just our clients but ourselves as well.
Recently I presented The Wellness Solution:Help Yourself Help The World to a group of cardiovascular pharmacists at the 20th Annual Contemporary Therapeutic Issues in Cardiovascular Disease Conference.
We tapped into the “wisdom in the room” to have an amazing collaborative discussion on how we can deal with compassion fatigue.
To recap, compassion fatigue can affect virtually everyone in the caring professions. It’s only natural that when we use our “muscles” of compassion and empathy every day that they can get worn out. The implications of having compassion fatigue on a regular basis aren’t great. It can lead to burnout and even a decline in the effectiveness of our service. So how do we counteract this? How do we help ourselves stay engaged in our work and help the people we serve in a way that is actually sustainable? In short, how can we keep caring?
We threw this open to the group and here are a few of the answers that we came up with.
1: Go for a quick walk. Sometimes when we are a bit overwhelmed by our practice, getting even a few minutes of fresh air and physical activity can act as a reset for us in the middle of our day.
2: Have a “Burnout Buddy”. Find a colleague in a similar situation to talk to on a regular basis. Set a time with them to support each other in a non-judgmental way. Because you are probably facing similar circumstances, you and your partner will be able to relate and realize that you are not the only ones facing this issue. As well, you get to drink coffee, which is always a bonus.
3: Pretend your client is a member of your family. I thought this one was terrific. Sometimes if we are dealing with someone who is particularly challenging and we lose our patience (pun intended), it can be a great idea to pretend that the person in front of us is actually a family member. If we think of our family member being a bit confused or needing a bit more help it can really help us find more compassion for the interaction. Heck, if your Mom or Uncle needed a bit of extra help, you’d give it to them in a heartbeat wouldn’t you? Of course you would. However, make sure you don’t slip up and refer to them as “Mom” or “Uncle Reggie” as that might get a little weird.
4: Get a Massage! Ok, this wasn’t one of the suggestions for dealing with compassion fatigue but I am all for getting a good dose of RMT on a regular basis. Published evidence shows that getting a massage can make an immediate and positive impact on our health and level of happiness. I’m guessing you have some unused health benefits just sitting there gathering dust. Time to make use of them and schedule a massage!
A few more are:
5: Meditate, centre yourself or do some deep breathing.
6: Recognize that you’re not seeing your patient at their best.
7: Think “I could find myself in the same situation as a patient”.
One of the great things about all of these strategies is that they are accessible to you right now. Virtually any one of us can go for a brisk walk at lunch and clear our head, or have a chat with a colleague about how this job is pretty tough sometimes. Heck, you can even go completely crazy and go for a massage! Once again, it was an absolute pleasure to meet all of you and to hear your great stories during “You Can Own The Room: Lose the Fear and Present like a Pro.”
At a recent event for The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington Dufferin, I was thrilled to present The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World. During one of the breaks, I was lucky enough to meet Laura McShane and we got talking about compassion fatigue. She agreed to a brief interview for this blog. But what does any of this have to do with AC/DC?
Rob: So, we’ve talked about compassion fatigue and I’m wondering could you just tell me at a very basic level what it is?
Laura: Yes, compassion fatigue is the cost of caring. It impacts the caring part of us that brought us into the helping field.
R: Is it just Mental Health Professionals who suffer from compassion fatigue?
L: Gosh, No. Everyone in the caring professions can be affected. Nurses, physicians, first responders and therapists can all be impacted by compassion fatigue. It goes beyond professions too. Parents looking after a sick child or caregivers of family member can be affected as well.
R: I read in some of my research that people who are affected by compassion fatigue sometimes take on the feelings of the people they are helping.
L: Caring professionals can be impacted by listening to the traumatic experiences and details of a client’s life and it can be very distressing for them.
R: Is there stigma in talking about it?
L: Well, I don’t know if I would call it stigma, but I would say that sometimes it might be difficult to address it because of a worry people might think that they aren’t capable of doing their jobs, which isn’t true. Compassion Fatigue affects the most caring, hard working people.
R: How did you learn about this and then become a trainer?
L: Well, I took a terrific workshop called “Walking The Walk” by Francoise Mathieu, which was really amazing. (link here) she has done some great work on compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma . The management team of CMHA WWD believe it is important to acknowledge that it exists and help provide staff with some strategies to cope with the impact.
R: What is one of the ways to deal with compassion fatigue?
L: Having a transition ritual is a great way to help cope. A transition ritual helps you make a separation between your work life and your home life.
R: How does that work?
L: Well, when you’re done for the day and you’re going home, you might want to crank AC/DC on your car stereo and sing sing sing!!!
R: That’s hilarious! And that’s a transition ritual?
L: Yes, it can help us draw the line between these two worlds so we don’t take the concerns of our work home with us.
R: What are some others?
L: Well, some others might be allowing ourselves to think about work up until a certain point in our drive home, say up until a marker on our drive, like a Tim Hortons. And then after that spot, we only think about our personal life and we leave work behind.
R: Any other ones?
L: Sure! A really great way of transitioning from work to home is to get out of our work clothes immediately after we get home and then getting into a more comfortable outfit. It can really help us change our mindset.
R: Do you have any stories from your own experience about dealing with compassion fatigue?
L: Yes I do. It was earlier in my career and I came home from work one day and I had a really rough day. There had been endless appointments and I had helped people all day long. I was exhausted. When I walked in the door, my daughter was so excited to see me and she wanted to go outside and play, bike ride, catch frogs, colour, and do all kinds of things. I said “Oh honey, Mummy is really tired right now, can I just have five minutes of quiet please because I have been helping people all day.” She looked at me and said “But Mummy, you’re my Mummy.”
L: And at that point I knew I had to make some changes.
R: Sometimes kids can have such clarity.
L: (laughs) Oh yes.
R: Is compassion fatigue something that we ever solve? Or is it something we have to deal with continually?
L: Well, I suppose it’s different for everyone. But, I don’t think we’re ever done. It’s part of the price of being a caring professional. One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that this builds up over time and has a cumulative effect. So, you can be in one job and then take another position somewhere else and your level of compassion fatigue might become more and more intense. Just because we have changed jobs doesn’t mean that we have solved the issue. It’s really important for us to keep looking after ourselves and making sure that we are making our self care a priority. That way, we can continue to do the work that we love and finish our day experiencing compassion satisfaction.
R: Thank so much for talking to me about this today! I really appreciate it.
L: You’re welcome! Thanks Rob.
R: To celebrate the awesomeness of this interview, let’s all crank “You Shook Me All Night Long” By Angus and the boys.
However, sometimes our “muscles” of compassion and empathy can get tired. You might be easily distracted when you’re with the people you serve. You might not care as much or be using your skills to the best of your ability.
It can be hard for us to admit that this is happening to us. We’d rather just push through it and pretend it isn’t there.
Then kablam! You realize “I’m suffering from compassion fatigue!”
It can feel like everyone is dealing with this better than we are. I’ll tell you a secret about humanity though, we all have our issues. Even the well adjusted “superstar” of your team can have a hard time with compassion fatigue.
So, how do we help ourselves through this? One of the great ways is to collaborate with our peers.
Really. Collaborating with our peers can help us like crazy.
It struck me that that there are literally thousands in the caring professions who are working really hard, giving generously of themselves and sometimes feeling really worn out in body and psyche because of the nature of this demanding work. I am guessing that no one in the world has this whole thing solved. Yep. No one. However, if we have one small piece of the puzzle worked out, shouldn’t we share what we have?
I had the honour recently of presenting my keynote “The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World” for The Canadian Mental Health Association: Waterloo Wellington Dufferin. I asked people to share how they dealt with this when they were having a tough day.
What happened my friends, was significant.
People stood up, talked and joked. They shared solutions and strategies to help each other with this tough issue and the energy of the room took off. As a speaker, it was so much fun to see more than a hundred people dive in and collaborate. In fact, folks were so pumped about helping each there that I had trouble ending the exercise and getting on with the show. It was a real testament to how generous people in the caring professions are and how, when we share what we have, everybody wins.
When the day ended, people were happier knowing that they helped their colleagues and that they had learned some valuable tools they could use the next time the elephant tried to sneak back in the room.