Compassion fatigue is an early warning sign of physician burnout

For anyone in the helping professions, compassion fatigue is a common occurrence and a clear signal to take better care of your own needs.

Compassion fatigue is when you find yourself challenged to care about your patients in the way you know is proper and expected in your position. One of the key components of quality healthcare is the ability for you to connect with your patients and for them to sense that connection. Compassion fatigue cuts you off from the people who need you the most, and it extends well beyond just your patients.

Cynicism, sarcasm and feeling put upon are the first signs

If you find yourself being cynical or sarcastic about your patients you have compassion fatigue. It can come in the little voice in your head, or mumbling under your breath or “venting” to your colleagues or staff.

If you find yourself feeling like your patients / staff / institution are deliberately trying to wear you out or drive you crazy – you have compassion fatigue.

Your emotional bank account is empty

Being a doctor or other helping professional is the perfect compassion fatigue formula. Caring for others with difficult, often chronic illnesses is a draining emotional experience. Think of yourself as having an emotional bank account. You simply can’t get to the end of an office day with the same amount of emotional energy in your account as when you started. Your job is draining, even on a good day.

It is up to you to recharge your emotional bank account on your own time. That’s where the double whammy hits.

At the same time your job is draining, you have been conditioned throughout your medical training that  your needs come last.

For many of the doctors I work with, they find it very difficult to know how they might recharge themselves. Their needs have not been on their radar for years, even decades.

It’s like the oxygen masks on an airplane – you have to put your mask on first

The key to avoiding compassion fatigue is taking care of your own emotional needs first. You can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t get water from a stone. If your emotional needs are not being met, you can’t be there emotionally for your patients when they  need you the most. And no one teaches you how to get your own emotional needs met in medical school or residency. It’s every doctor for themselves.

Here’s the unspoken tragedy

If you can’t be emotionally present for your patients because of compassion fatigue … you can’t be there for your spouse, significant other, children or friends either. Everyone loses when you allow yourself to be tapped out at work. And this is just the start of a slippery slope.

Compassion fatigue is one of the three signs of physician burnout along with physical exhaustion and a sense that your work doesn’t make any real difference.

Compassion fatigue is a sign you are not getting your needs met. Your emotional bank account is tapped out. There’s nothing left. You are running on empty and cynicism and sarcasm are simply defense mechanisms when your back is against the wall.

Time for some exquisite self care

I imagine you have not taken enough time for yourself or the most important people in your life lately. Your emotional bank account may be even worse than empty … you may be overdrawn and in a major negative balance. Here’s are a few keys to address this urgently.

Do a great job with every patient you see and,

  • Cut your work hours back to minimum
  • Only chart what is necessary, stop worrying about complete sentences and punctuation
  • Strongly consider some time off
  • Take care of your needs first (remember the oxygen mask)
  • Get some rest
  • Get some exercise
  • Do something fun you have put off in a while
  • Spend some quality time with your significant other and children

Make recharging a part of your normal life

These non-work activities are key to keeping your emotional bank account full and to you being the best you can be. Be sure to schedule these recharging activities into your life every month from now on.

  • Choose your rechargers
  • Schedule them
  • Do them
  • Celebrate them

Begin to treat these recharging activities as equally important to your call schedule. Don’t skip or scrimp because these things don’t feel as important to you as taking care of other people’s needs. That’s just your training and conditioning talking.  It’s what got you to this point of compassion fatigue in the first place.

Remember the oxygen mask and get your needs taken care of first. Take exquisite care of yourself as the foundation for taking care of others. This is the only way you can be emotionally available for your patients and your family and avoid even deeper levels of burnout.

Dike Drummond is a family physician and provides burnout prevention and treatment services for healthcare professionals at his site, The Happy MD.

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