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What’s the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout, and how can nonprofit organizations address these challenges? To learn more, I spoke with Jessica Dolce, an educator who offers compassion fatigue and resilience training.
Jessica’s definition of compassion fatigue is a “profound physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion, due to the constant demands of working in an intense caregiving environment, which causes a decline in our desire, energy, and ability to feel and care for others.”
Experiencing compassion fatigue means you’ve become so depleted that the very qualities that brought you to the work initially start to erode because you can’t replenish yourself. Over time, compassion fatigue disconnects us from our work, each other, and ourselves.
Compassion fatigue may immediately make you think of healthcare workers and others on the front lines of trauma. But Jessica is quick to point out it’s a myth that you only experience compassion fatigue if you’re doing direct care. Indirect exposure can lead to compassion fatigue, too. If you’re fundraising for a healthcare organization, an animal welfare organization, or an organization addressing climate change, for example, you’re still susceptible to compassion fatigue.
Burnout stems from working conditions. Anyone, in any job, can experience burnout when there is increased demand with reduced support or resources. (You can read more about avoiding burnout in small nonprofit shops in this article.)
In contrast, compassion fatigue stems from empathetic engagement with the populations you’re serving. Even in excellent working conditions, you’re still likely to experience it at some point because of the nature of your work. In that way, compassion fatigue is really an occupational hazard.
As Jessica points out, when we think of jobs involving physical hazards, we understand that our employer has a responsibility to protect us. If you work in a restaurant kitchen, you’re likely to burn yourself at some point—it’s a predictable risk since you’re exposed to those circumstances daily. We have to think the same for emotional health. These are predictable, occupational risks.
Unfortunately, sometimes compassion fatigue is framed as an individual shortcoming, and self-care is held up as both the prevention and the cure. While self-care is important to our resilience, it is not sufficient on its own.
Our resilience is context-dependent. Organizations have an obligation to minimize risks and protect the psychological safety of their staff. Jessica points out that there are workplace factors that can make someone more susceptible to compassion fatigue, and those include insufficient training, lack of mentorship and debriefing opportunities, and the absence of professional support.
Organizations should address this proactively, rather than waiting until employees are suffering. The first way to address compassion fatigue is simply by naming and acknowledging it in the workplace. This lets employees know that their feelings are normal, and even expected.
Organizations should help build employees’ resilience by investing in training. With better skills specific to their jobs, workers feel more competent. This means they’ll be more resilient. Training related to trauma is important, too.
And fair compensation is critical. As Jessica shared, “self-care isn’t the solution if your staff can’t pay their rent.”
Maybe your organization isn’t addressing this concern yet, but you see the need is there. How do you raise the topic?
First, be mindful of what is in your control. As an employee, you may not be able to effect change at the organizational level. But you can introduce the idea by sharing that you read an article or took a class and would love to have a speaker or training on this topic.
You can talk about the business case for the organization to address this important issue. There are organizational costs to stress and destress on the job, such as absenteeism, conflict, staff turnover, and mistakes made on the job (a good resource to check out is this one, from Tend Academy). Jessica recommends pointing to those as issues that can be alleviated by addressing compassion fatigue as an organization. She finds that leaders are more receptive to this topic due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Compassion fatigue is a normal and expected part of helping others. By understanding it and addressing it at the organizational level, a nonprofit can better support its employees and be more effective in its work.
For more resources on this topic, Jessica recommends the following:
The Vicarious Trauma Toolkit
The Secondary Traumatic Stress-Informed Organizational Assessment Tool
Thank you to Jessica for sharing her time and expertise on this important topic.
Jessica Dolce, MS CCFE, is a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator, receiving her training from TEND Academy. She brings 20 years of experience working with and for companion animals to The Compassion in Balance® Program, her online education platform for animal welfare workers. She is an instructor with The Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida and has worked with organizations such as the ASPCA, HSUS, The National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, and Animals Asia. Jessica holds a Master of Science in Adult and Higher Education degree and can be found online at https://jessicadolce.com.
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