The ability to feel empathy is something unique to humans. Offering support to our friends and family helps us build stronger relationships. This is also true in the workplace. When co-workers are facing a difficult time, they turn to their peers. While this offers relief to the one suffering, it can create a new form of stress for the listener.
This form of stress is called compassion fatigue. Originally, it was identified in caregivers for traumatized people. For example, mental health professionals who worked with veterans with PTSD often suffered from compassion fatigue. After hearing tragic stories day after day, they began to feel an overwhelming secondary stress.
Most employees aren’t at high risk for compassion fatigue. But if employees have an empathetic personality, they are more susceptible to this stress. Especially if they’re the go-to for emotional support after a crisis. It may be hard for empathetic people to turn their peers away, but leaders can step in to help.
Here are four ways to address compassion fatigue in the workplace:
Most people outside of the mental health industry don’t know about compassion fatigue. They don’t know what the symptoms are or the negative impact it can have on their psychological state. By arming employees with this knowledge, they can seek help if needed.
First, explain what compassion fatigue is. While it’s a serious issue, the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project points that it affects people who are inherently caring. Let employees know that struggling with this stress doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. It’s just a sign of their empathetic nature.
Next, provide a list of common symptoms. These include:
When employees start exhibiting these symptoms, they’ll be able to identify the cause. This will help them get proper care before things worsen.
When empathetic people get overwhelmed by other’s emotional stress, they ignore their own needs. Many people with compassion fatigue stop taking pride in their appearance. They don’t take time to recharge. They see others suffering and feel guilty taking time for themselves.
This is why it’s important for leaders to set a good example. Let employees know how you take time to relax. Encourage them to set aside time for themselves as well. If need be, build this into the workday. For example, set up a sign-up sheet where employees can choose a 20-minute block each day to go for a walk and clear their head.
Most importantly, model boundaries for employees. Even if empathetic people do set aside time for themselves, they’ll often abandon it because someone else needs to talk. They just can’t say “no.” However, if leaders show employees the importance of boundaries, individuals will realize that saying “no” can be beneficial for everyone in the long-run.
For example, many leaders refuse to answer work emails on the weekend. That is their time to practice self-care, so they set up a boundary to prevent work distractions. Let employees know they can — and should — do the same thing. They might decide they’re willing to have coffee with a co-worker after work to discuss their issues but will not do it in the office.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming more common for tragedy to affect the workplace. Whether it’s a natural disaster or news of a mass shooting, these events stress employees out. And many turn to empathetic colleagues to discuss their fears.
Defuse some of this pressure by bringing employees together to talk. After a tragedy, schedule a voluntary meeting. Those who are feeling particularly scared or stressed can vent their feelings to the group. This way, everyone gets emotional support, but no one person feels the compassion fatigue from providing that support.
Make sure to set some ground rules for these meetings. Set up a system of turns so each employee gets a chance to speak without being interrupted. Also, make it clear that the meeting is about sharing feelings, not about discussing the political issues that might be attached to a tragic event.
While it’s important for co-workers to trust and share with each other, there are some issues they are not equipped to deal with. This is why it’s important that employees have access to professional mental health support.
Make sure employees know what their options are through employee benefits. Don’t assume they already know because they received the insurance handbook. Have a list of numbers employees can call listed in the break room. This way, they can write down the information when they need it.
It’s also important to address the stigma surrounding mental health. If employees feel embarrassed asking for help, they’ll continue to suffer. For instance, plan events for Mental Health Awareness Month in May. This will open up the conversation and show employees there’s no shame in asking for help, whether they’re suffering from day-to-day stress or compassion fatigue.