Minimizing compassion fatigue, or “the cost of caring”, begins with taking care of ourselves. Developing a self-care plan isn’t as hard as it looks, yet it also isn’t as easy as it sounds. We simply can’t change years, perhaps a lifetime, of giving care to others first when we wake up tomorrow morning. We need tools to make these changes, and an understanding of what we hope to gain.
Change is never easy. We may mistakenly believe that undergoing this type of personal change, a focus to our needs, is a private process where we’re the only one who stands to benefit from our success or suffer if we fail. That is wrong; there are others counting on us to succeed. Our families, our friends, and our colleagues are just a handful of the people that depend on our success. Even our patients and their families depend on us to find a way to provide the care they need without becoming emotionally fatigued. Keep this in mind as you move through this journey.
The following eight laws introduce strategies that we can use both within our workplaces and beyond to create a healthy change in our life.
Eight Laws Governing Healthy Change (~Patricia Smith, 2008)
- Take frequent breaks from what you are doing: most employers offer break time, yet we choose to work through breaks quite frequently. You are entitled to take this break, and it becomes even more important as you become more engrossed in your work. Your dedication is admirable, but it’s vital for you to step away from your work on occasion. At home or in your personal life, you also need to create space for your own thoughts, hobbies, and interests.
- Learn the word “no”; use it whenever necessary: this doesn’t mean you can suddenly refuse to do what your boss says, but it does mean that you need to be reasonable in the expectations put upon you, even by yourself. You may be tempted to keep saying yes to new requests of special projects or a heavier workload, but you have to realize when you’ve reached your limit. If needed, let your boss help you prioritize your “to do” list based on the practice’s needs. At home, let your family help you say yes to those things that are important, and no to those things that don’t require your energy at this time. You may find that you’re better at the things left on your list when you’ve shortened the length.
- Share the load with others: although the space you find yourself in at times may feel lonely, you are not alone. You are surrounded by people who share the same passion as you during the workday, and you are all struggling in the same way. Help each other to even out the load. The same is true at home; you share the same goal as others in your lives, to spend less time “working” and more quality time together. If the load is spread out, there will be more time to appreciate each other.
- There is humor in every situation: find it and laugh. Laughter IS the best medicine, and it certainly has its place in veterinary medicine as well. In fact, most of our practices have developed many “inside jokes”, and at times a rather “dark” sense of humor that can help lift the mood after an intense situation with the team. It’s ok, there is a place for humor in our workplaces. Be sure your home life supplies some laughs too, whether it’s funny pets, happy children, or just laughing at, or with, your spouse from time to time.
- Recognize when you need help; ASK for it: we are not good about this is our profession. In fact, what we ARE good at is taking on the load by ourselves, and then complaining about the fact that no one stepped up to help us. It has to occur to us to ask for help, and not expect our colleagues to be mind-readers all the time. Certainly there are times when it’s obvious you need help and someone should offer, but we also have a responsibility to make our needs known. Kids, spouses, and friends are also not mind readers, so pipe up during your personal time as well when you need a hand.
- Give yourself credit when credit is due: it’s perfectly natural to want to feel appreciated by our bosses and colleagues, but sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and if you’ve accomplished something that others might not see as obvious, go ahead and mention the project you completed, the cleaning you finished, the difficult client you were able to soothe. You do deserve the credit, both at work and at home.
- Give others credit when credit is due: if you’re not handing out praise from time to time, then you aren’t looking hard enough at the success of others. Gratitude is one of those things that is contagious; if you give it out, it’s liable to come back to you two-fold. Show your colleagues that you appreciate their hard work, and then take that attitude home with you to show your family that you are proud.
- Breathe deeply as often as possible: this may seem natural, but often during stressful times we do not breathe as deeply as our body needs. A few moments of deep, concentrated breathing can make a world of difference to how our minds, and bodies, cope with stress. High levels of stress sometimes require intense coping methods such as meditation, breathing exercises, or others.
In order to have compassion to give to others, we must nurture it within ourselves first. This is where we start to minimize and cope with compassion fatigue, so “the cost of caring” is something we CAN afford!
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