Awareness of compassion fatigue is emphasised by Sister Kay Lawlor in her courses for Stress Management.
Some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue might include increased anxiety, intrusive thoughts or images of clients' trauma, difficulty separating work from personal life, lowered frustration tolerance, increased outbursts of anger or rage, dread of working with certain clients, depression and feelings of sadness, hyper-vigilance or feeling 'on guard', decreased feelings of work competence, diminished sense of purpose and enjoyment of one's career, relationship problems, loss of sense of humour, lowered functioning in nonprofessional situations, and loss of hope.
In dealing with compassion fatigue, Sister Kay talks about stress, distress, burnout and trauma. Understanding these is important when relating to our staff and family caregivers as well as in taking care of ourselves.
Cumulative stress, or the prolonged exposure to numerous daily aggressions, even minor ones, may lead to anxiety, depression, deep emotional wounding, and burnout. This is something that comes to the fore a lot when dealing with HIV/AIDS.
In other trauma situations, we talk about 'post trauma' or 'post stress', but with HIV/AIDS there is no 'post' period, so stress becomes cumulative. This is where we begin to get into trouble, because ordinary stress mobilizes our energy. It is not overwhelming; one bounces back. Distress takes a bit longer. Cumulative stress is something of which we have to be aware and with which we have to deal.
"Organizational acknowledgement and recognition of secondary trauma can help, but those involved also need to build up their resilience through self-care," she says. Those involved in ongoing situations where they have to deal with trauma need regular emotional first aid. Debriefing with others and community support are very helpful in this process.
Sometimes our staff members are caregivers in their own families as well as carers for others through their work. We need to be sensitive to reactions that may be coming from stress and trauma.