Caring for You By Caring for Our Providers

How UT Health Austin helps its providers navigate compassion fatigue

Reviewed by: Donna Shanor, LCSW, LCDC
Written by: Abbi Havens

A man wearing medical scrubs stands with his back turned speaking to a woman who faces the camera, also wearing scrubs.

Most likely, you are no stranger to self-care. You know that setting aside time to focus on yourself, whether that’s indulging in a scoop (or three) of Ben & Jerry’s or binge-watching your favorite true crime docu-series, does wonders for your mental health. But sometimes self-care is not enough to handle second-hand trauma and compassion fatigue often experienced by those in the “helping profession.”

Working in healthcare, any career centered around helping others in need, or caring for a family member or friend struggling with an ongoing chronic health issue is extremely rewarding. Building deep-rooted connections to our patients and providing the best possible care to improve lives is why we choose to do what we do. But compassion fatigue exists and managing its effects often requires more than self-care. Here at UT Health Austin, we value the mental health of our own medical providers because when we care for them, they care for you.

Defining Compassion Fatigue

What is compassion fatigue? UT Health Austin’s Director of Clinical Social Work, Donna Shanor, LCSW, LCDC, defines it as the “cost of caring.” More specifically, compassion fatigue is a negative response to second-hand trauma and consistent exposure to a distressing environment. Anyone working in the “helping profession,” including doctors, nurses, social workers, paramedics, law enforcement, teachers, and other caregivers are at risk of developing compassion fatigue, and likely will experience compassion fatigue to some extent throughout their career.

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue

Every day, members of these professions take on the emotional stress of their patients and clients to empathize and provide care. They are giving and compassionate by nature, and more than happy to dedicate their time and careers to helping others achieve their goals. But caregivers and providers may need help managing the effects of this compassion when it becomes too much to endure.

Compassion fatigue manifests both mentally and physically in those who experience it. The effects of compassion fatigue are real, and often prevent providers and caregivers from enjoying their lives to the fullest. Signs that you are experiencing compassion fatigue include:

  • Nightmares and insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to empathize
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Irritability with family and friends

It’s often easy to mistake the signs of compassion fatigue for that of clinical depression, and the two do bear a strong resemblance. However, they are differentiated by the frequency of symptoms experienced. Depression is ongoing, but the symptoms of compassion fatigue are directly related to work. If after a carefree long weekend, you feel your symptoms of dread, fatigue and anxiety set in on Sunday evening, you are likely suffering from compassion fatigue. According to Shanor, recognizing compassion fatigue in yourself is a victory. It is often difficult for caregivers to acknowledge the presence of these feelings because they do not want to seem insensitive to the patient. However, when you recognize compassion fatigue, you can work to overcome it, ultimately improving the quality of care provided to the patient.

Preventing Compassion Fatigue

When it comes to tackling compassion fatigue at UT Health Austin, Shanor is dedicated to inspiring a culture shift on an organizational level.

“In healthcare, the culture is often ‘if it’s too hot get out of the kitchen, maybe you’re not cut out for this,’ and that’s a lot of pressure. More and more research shows that provider burnout is real and we need to address that. You can’t pour from an empty cup. To care for patients, you have to care for yourself.”

Shanor tackles compassion fatigue on her team by asking one question:

“I ask them where their stories go. I think health care providers take on the stories of their patients. It takes a lot of emotional energy. And where do the stories go at the end of the day? It’s important to move these stories in a positive direction and have an outlet for them, as opposed to carrying them with you all the time. Preventing or addressing compassion fatigue is increasing compassion satisfaction via appropriate training to do your job, increasing opportunities to see the impact you have on others, seeking out consultation or support from your colleagues or supervisor.”

Shanor advises that you should always be confident in asking for what you need in your workplace. Adequate professional development is necessary to acquire the skills you need to increase compassion satisfaction (the opposite of compassion fatigue). There are many strategies you can use on an individual level to cope with those “stories” when you recognize the effects of compassion fatigue. Breathing exercises and meditation are an effective coping tool, and can be done anywhere, anytime. Bonus, it’s free! Focus on equal breathing – count to four as you breathe in and as you breath out. Place one hand on your chest and one hand beneath your ribs and feel the motion of your deep breathing. To re-center throughout the workday, take short breaks to step outside and feel the sun or go on a quick walk with a coworker (and as hard as it may be, don’t talk about work).

A healthy lifestyle and hobbies that are unrelated to your occupation are also important to prevent or lessen the effects of compassion fatigue. Engage in regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and surround yourself with friends and family who are supportive and uplifting. Try journaling as an outlet for your emotions as a caregiver. Continuously check in with yourself. Are you short-tempered with your friends and family outside of work? Do you feel constantly anxious? Are you struggling to sleep through the night? Whatever symptoms you experience, it may be time to take a day off, reset, and seek help if necessary.

As Shanor reminds us, providers are expected to experience compassion fatigue. It’s how we cope with those feelings we experience and how we treat others experiencing compassion fatigue that matters. At UT Health Austin, our patients are at the center of everything that we do, so we will strive to keep our providers happy and healthy. Because when we care for our providers, we care for you.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.