Self care in social work: Compassion fatigue a growing concern

Jan 6, 2014

By Paul R. Pace, News staff

Social worker Lisa Wessan knows personally how debilitating compassion fatigue can feel — emotionally and physically.

She was one of many social workers who volunteered to help the people of New York City cope with the grief and uncertainty after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Following that day, Wessan continued to work as a geriatric social worker for a senior care center in the city. On several evenings and weekends she joined her alma mater, Hunter College School of Social Work, where it mobilized social workers to help the Red Cross deliver mini grief sessions at makeshift stations within a couple of miles of Ground Zero.

While aiding others with their sense of deep loss and the uncertainty of potentially more attacks, Wessan realized she was suffering as well. As the days progressed, she lacked sleep and found it difficult to focus on her work. Unexplained physical ailments materialized.

“I felt I was drowning in grief,” she said. “My nervous system was being stretched to its limits.”

Wessan and her colleagues had developed compassion fatigue, also referred to as secondary traumatic stress. Compassion fatigue is a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion associated with caring for clients in distress, Wessan said.

Fortunately, Hunter College saw how the trauma was impacting social workers and established secondary traumatic stress support groups at the school. The groups offered grief counselors an opportunity to come together and talk after their Red Cross duties. “The professors and staff (at Hunter) were amazing during this crisis,” Wessan said.

“Nine-eleven forced me to reach out and get all kinds of extra help, including Reiki,” she said.

Since that time, Wessan, who now lives in Massachusetts and works as a psychotherapist and life coach, has taken the prevention of compassion fatigue to heart. She consults on the topic and performs in-service trainings at various health care organizations that offer attendees new skills in addressing stress and compassion fatigue.

“Our goal (at the trainings) is to learn to deeply let go and lighten up, to go beyond the autopilot,” said Wessan, who also is co-chair of the NASW Northeast Private practice Special Interest Group that is associated with the NASW Massachusetts Chapter.

Compassion fatigue is an issue that deserves greater attention, Wessan said. Social workers are more vulnerable than ever to develop the condition due to ever increasing demands on staffs to do more with less.

“I want to help prevent our social workers from changing careers due to compassion fatigue,” she said.

“In 1999, I rarely heard of a social worker leaving the field to become a real estate broker,” Wessan explained. “These days, I hear of a social worker leaving the field at least twice a month.”

Wessan said it is important that social workers take a time-out to examine whether they may be suffering from secondary traumatic stress. Symptoms include impatience, and feeling overwhelmed, teary and unfocused.

Employers also need to take responsibility in combating compassion fatigue for their staffs, Wessan said. Compassion fatigue results in decreased productivity and higher turnover rates.

“Your clients suffer as well, seeing you become worn out, sick and cranky,” Wessan said. “You are no longer a good role model for thriving behavior.”

Wessan published a top 10 list called “Ways to Take Care of Your Precious Self and Prevent Compassion Fatigue” for the NASW Massachusetts Chapter’s September 2013 newsletter.

View the NASW YouTube video where Wessan discusses her Top 10 List for Self Care.

From the January 2014 NASW News. NASW members can view the full story after logging in.