Compassion Fatigue: The Heartache of a Job That Requires All Heart

Anonymous asked a question:

I’m a medical social worker and quite new to the profession. For a long while I had thought that it was what I wanted to do in life. Now… I’m not quite sure. It’s exhausting and I’m not quite sure if it’s beneficial for my mental health in the long run… so many patients to see who need a lot of help but hospitals just want to hurry and discharge them. Part of me wonders if it’s worth it or is it better to just work an unemotional administrative job. Any advice? Prayer please

Hey dear friend, I’m sorry that you’re going through this. I also applaud you for choosing your profession. I work alongside many social workers (I’m a hospital chaplain) and y’all are seriously the best of the best.

A few things. If you haven’t done so already, I would consider seeking therapy. It helps. Anyone in the field of service and healing takes on so much, and it’s too much for any one person to hold. It requires processing.

I would find experienced people in your field and be in conversation with them. Process with them. Ask them how they did it and how they continue to do so.

Some hospitals are not like others. I’m fortunate to work at a really good one where the nurses and doctors really care. Your issue might be the place you’re working at.

You had also mentioned it might be better to work an “unemotional administrative job.” I can tell you right now, almost any job is emotional, including admin. It really depends on how your workplace helps you to deal with those things.

Which brings us to “compassion fatigue.” This is a very real issue. Some of us (like me) over-identify with our patients and tend to feel everything all the time. It’s not entirely a bad thing, but it can also be draining. Some of us (also me) have a bit of a savior-martyr-hero syndrome and really need to check our motives. We need safer boundaries and more spaces of rest. We’re likely to pour out so much as if this is “sacrifice,” when really it’s self-harm and it ends up harming everyone.

It’s helpful to know what your rhythms look like. It’s worth asking: When do you get most tired? Most hurt? What do you do for rest? What is your body telling you today? What are your heart and mind saying? How can it be changed for better today?

Two other important things.

1) You might be burned out on something else. Sometimes it’s not the thing that we think it is. It could be a family issue, a relational thing, a trauma that hasn’t been dealt with, an ongoing stress that you might have said is “normal” but is anything but. It’s helpful to take an inventory of what’s happening in your life, and be in conversation with people who care and who can say, “What’s happened to you is not okay.”

2) Everyone, to some degree, is catching up to themselves. We’re a little busted up and behind. While fatigue and burn-out and disillusionment are all very real things, any kind of work will bring some level of self-doubt and uncertainty. That’s okay. You might need a simple reminder that you’re doing great and you’re exactly where you should be. Second-guessing is normal. There’s nothing wrong with you that isn’t “wrong” with everyone else.

In the end, it’s possible the medical field isn’t for you. That’s okay. It’s painful to admit this, but it happens. In other words, it’s worth asking: Is this really where you want to be? Can you do this not only for the next mile, but for the marathon? It’s okay if your answer is no.

My wife dropped out of medical school after two weeks, and after an excruciating season of finding herself, she decided to become a nurse. Today she’s a nurse practitioner. She is much happier. I pray you find your way. It might take more than one try, and that’s okay. Much love and many prayers to your continued discovery.

— J.S.

Photo from Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue: The Heartache of a Job That Requires All Heart

  1. Good thoughts! I want to add a wholehearted agreement on seeking therapy. If not therapy, then clinical supervision.

    I worked in several settings and the thing that made the most difference was being able to process the days’ events with someone who was on the same page as I was. In one setting, we were able to process with each other quickly, almost instantly. And required to process weekly. I cannot describe the enormous difference that kind of support can make.

    In my last (12 year) position, there was no one to process with and “wasting” time talking about the traumas we were experiencing was discouraged. I refused to accept that definition of processinng as time wasted and found people and ways to process – if only in journal form with myself. Don’t let anyone tell you that your own mental/spiritual health is a “waste of time”.

    Liked by 1 person

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