Compassion and care is only fair – for everyone

Learning Points: Compassion and care is only fair – for everyone

One of the most challenging and rewarding occupations is care-giving.

Recently, I delivered a talk to the Filipino Carers’ Lifeline Association of Ireland. The topic was ‘compassion fatigue’.

The term compassion fatigue was first coined by Dr Charles Figley, who became more and more fatigued listening to horror stories of war told by US soldiers returning from Vietnam.

We are all impacted by the work we do. However, those working in the health profession are profoundly more susceptible to burnout.

Most of us, to some degree, become carers at some point. When I was in my early twenties, my grandmother fell and broke her hip.

She was older and so she couldn’t look after herself. I took a few years out of college to care for her, so that she didn’t have to go into a home. It was a challenging time, but our relationship deepened in ways I find hard to express.

And now, as a middle-aged man, looking back on those days, I think how lucky and privileged I was to be able to do that for her.

And yet, I also recall how hard it was. I found the routine of her life incredibly challenging and I often felt close to burnout. So, when I was offered the opportunity to speak to the wonderful Filipino carers’ community, I jumped at the chance.

Because I know how important the work of a carer is in our society and how easily, if carers do not pay attention to themselves, they can become fatigued.

Whether you are a professional carer or caring for a loved-one, it is incredibly important that you protect yourself from burnout.

A common characteristic of carers is that they are motivated by the desire to help everyone. You cannot help everyone and if you are trying to accomplish something that cannot be done, you will be left exhausted and disillusioned.

Understanding what it is that motivates you to do the work you do is a significant insight, if you want to prevent burnout. Our formative years are never too far in the past, and are perhaps the single biggest reason why we get into health work.

What are the signs of burnout?

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Constantly thinking about work or a particular patient
  • Becoming easily irritated or angry
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Loss of interest in once-loved activities
  • Using alcohol or prescription medication

In my clinical experience, carers can feel guilty when discussing self-care. They see it as selfish. However, I often cite the safety procedure for loss of cabin pressure on a plane. I ask them – what do the procedures instruct passengers to do? Well, they tell the parents of children to attend to their own oxygen first, before looking to help their own children. Why is this? Because you cannot help anyone when you are struggling for oxygen yourself. This analogy often changes how they view self-care.

Because true caring starts within, you cannot help anyone if you do not care for yourself.

There is a reason why care-givers are far more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. The demands placed on them, on any given day, are quiet considerable. And burnout is a very real and dangerous aspect of care-giving because burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that may be accompanied by a change in attitude from positive and caring to negative and unconcerned.

And that is why protecting yourself against burnout is so vitally important. Far from being selfish, it is about ensuring you are performing your duty to the best of your ability.

Steps for a healthy working life:

  • Understanding that your care-giving starts with you
  • You cannot lose your identity in your role as care-giver
  • Make your down time count
  • Find a critical friend, someone whom you can confide in about your feelings
  • Exercise – the best cure for mild mental health issue is exercise and good diet
  • Do not allow all your conversations to be consumed with work
  • You cannot help everyone

Keep perspective on your working life. We work so that we can afford the life we want to have with our family and friends.

Work should not consume every aspect of our life. Care-giving is a truly wonderful and noble profession and there is incredible meaning to be gained from it, but it is not without burden and, as a care-giver, you must protect yourself, because your own health, and the health of your family, is more important than anything.

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