Combating Compassion Fatigue with Workforce Resilience

July 17, 2023 by Adam Perlman, MD, MPH, FACP

Article originally published by meQuilibrium.

Emotional reservoirs are running low, and the more people experience stress, the less likely they are to be empathetic to others.

We’re all at a point where our emotional reservoirs are running low. Amid global destabilization, social uprising, emerging health threats, and the ongoing fallout of COVID-19, 41% of Americans are struggling with mental health and 39% are struggling with stress.

On an emotional level, the pandemic created a perfect storm that drained our empathy and drastically reduced social interactions. It’s become easier to respond to day-to-day situations with apathy or indifference, where we would have previously shown greater compassion.

Healthcare workers in particular have felt the pressure. Since COVID began, the healthcare industry has lost an estimated 20% of its workforce. The worst may be yet to come, as 47% of U.S. healthcare workers plan to leave their current role within the next 2-3 years. In today’s workplace, over 65% of employees have expressed significant increases in stress, and 55% of employees are strongly considering resigning and changing jobs.

Although healthcare workers are under constant stress, they are also being called upon to demonstrate compassion throughout their workday. Together, these two factors work to drain the emotional battery, leading to an empathy deficit. The problem is, the more people experience stress, the less likely they are to be empathetic to others. It’s not that they no longer have compassion; it’s just that their ability to express it becomes exhausted.

The emotional toll employees have faced across healthcare and a variety of other industries actually has a name: Compassion Fatigue. The concept of Compassion Fatigue was first introduced by Joinson to characterize a state of reduced capacity for compassion as a consequence of exhaustion caused by contact with the suffering of others. This is seen by clinicians as secondary trauma and has far-reaching repercussions. A person experiencing Compassion Fatigue may find it difficult to love, nurture, care for, or empathize with the suffering of another.

What I’m seeing in my setting as a doctor is that while the signs and symptoms are the same as before the pandemic, they’re now amplified because we’re experiencing more trauma. Healthcare workers are often inundated with patients who are very ill. If our ability to be resilient is like a rubber band, no matter how strong we are, the more pressure we’re under, the more the rubber band is stretched. There are three ways to help your workforce get ahead of Compassion Fatigue with resilience, and create a culture of informed care.

Understand how Compassion Fatigue relates to burnout.

It’s critical to know how Compassion Fatigue relates to burnout. Burnout occurs when the demands being placed on an employee exceed the resources available to deal with them. Signs of burnout include sleep problems, physical complaints, lack of work-life balance, and life satisfaction, poor stress management, low work engagement, and poor emotional control. Burnout can be triggered by increased workplace demands, lack of resources, interpersonal stressors, and organizational policy leading to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness.

Symptoms of burnout and Compassion Fatigue are similar, in that they are manifestations of emotional exhaustion. Compassion Fatigue includes symptoms such as isolation, physical ailments, bottled-up emotions, substance abuse, recurring nightmares, and flashbacks. Compassion Fatigue will amplify and accelerate burnout.

Understanding how Compassion Fatigue and burnout intersect can hold the key to understanding what needs to change.

Address social support and connection in your organization by making time to listen and understand.

Among the contributing factors for healthcare and frontline workers experiencing Compassion Fatigue are reduced physical contact in order to observe social distancing and the increased use of protective gear. The reality is, humans need each other during challenging times—especially those in the role of caretaker, with the responsibility of caring for everyone else first.

As noted by David Rodriguez, Ph.D., Executive Vice President and former CHRO of Marriott International, “Building resilience is not just about the business. We’re firm believers that the first foundation to a healthy business is healthy human beings and having the right orientation to change.”

If listening to your people, hearing their stories, and understanding how they feel as a part of the effort to transform your workplace isn’t standard practice, it should be, because it works. During COVID, Christy Ewing, Former Enterprise Wellness Program Lead at Centura Health visited all Centura hospitals to do rounds with an internal EAP, along with their spiritual team. After rolling out meQuilibrium, “People would come up to me and tell me their stories and how it has impacted the way they handle stress in their lives and the way they show up in their days. It was very inspiring to hear…we took those stories and shared them across our system in our entity newsletters.” Centura benefitted by recognizing the importance of meeting people where they are, and making an effort to have important conversations, building relationships, and connecting with people.

Create an action plan to address Compassion Fatigue and burnout for 100% of your population.

Addressing workforce resilience is a critical strategy to help address the root cause of Compassion Fatigue symptoms. A critical step is to help provide your people with access to the right tools, including an EAP, telehealth, and skill training. Here’s the question organizations should be asking: How can resilience skills complement company goals to create a culture of caring?

A well-executed action plan can have a positive impact with people and also with organizations. For example, one hospital system with more than 15,000 employees was struggling with a high-stress work environment, which was impacting front-line worker behavior and ultimately patient satisfaction. The company adopted meQuilibrium’s digital coaching platform with the goals of increasing their employees’ abilities to cope with stress and adapt to change, improve productivity, increase employee engagement, and lower absenteeism. Arming leaders with detailed workplace insights to unveil population risks, the company saw a 20% improvement in burnout, emotional control, and productivity. They also saw significant improvements in absenteeism.

Many problems of today’s world are unavoidable, but Compassion Fatigue and related risks such as burnout and stress can be addressed through resilience training for the betterment of your workforce.

About the Author

Adam Perlman, MD, MPH, FACP

As Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Adam Perlman advises on the physical manifestations of stress and anxiety and how to address those symptoms through the meQuilibrium program. Dr. Perlman is a senior associate consultant in the Division of General Internal Medicine, Department of Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Perlman joined the staff of Mayo Clinic in January 2019 as Director of Integrative Health and Well-being for Mayo Clinic Florida. In January 2020, he was named Medical Director for Employee Well-being for Mayo Clinic Florida.

About MORE Health®

MORE Health is a global digital health company known for giving individuals access to the best medical minds when facing a serious illness. Recognized as a leader in cross-border telemedicine, MORE Health brings renowned specialists together through its award-winning technology, connecting them with patients worldwide. To date, MORE Health has helped patients on six continents and continues its mission to provide clients and their members access to the best medical minds in the world when they need it most. The company, incorporated in 2013, is headquartered in Silicon Valley. 

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