• Caitlin Ackerman

Combating Compassion Fatigue During a Pandemic

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

By Caitlin Ackerman

This month FitPros organized our second Thought Leadership event bringing together our community of human resource managers, broker partners, and wellness experts to discuss Compassion Fatigue and Self Care for Business Leaders. During shelter in place, and physical distancing, it is our goal to bring people together to collaborate and problem solve. This month, FitPros curated a safe space for people to explore their emotions and reflect on their self-care practices - encouraging them to take care of themselves so that they can best perform in their role of taking care of others.

When we think about “caregivers” we often think about mothers, fathers, family members, or paid professionals who look after children or those who are sick, elderly, or disabled. In fact - that is the exact definition of this term. But when we break down the role of a caregiver and look at the hard and soft skills needed to be successful, we can observe similarities between the traditional role and business leaders who are leading during a pandemic. While formal caregiving entails “caring for those who cannot care for themselves,” we have observed a shift in function for human resources personnel as they currently support a workforce that would otherwise not have been able to professionally care for themselves during this period. Many are going above and beyond to meet the basic needs of sending computers and headsets directly to the home. They are advocating for those who are laid off and furloughed to get the best packages possible; they are working with finance teams to reallocate budgets to support employee wellbeing, they are a listening ear, and they are restructuring policies daily to accommodate the unknown. And they are doing all of this - while simultaneously navigating their own emotions, stressors, and families.

Furthermore, the hard and soft skills needed to be successful as a caregiver and business leader include compassion, empathy, communication, interpersonal skills, time management, organization, flexibility, and problem-solving. This is no coincidence, therefore, it should not be a surprise that the challenges caregivers face are also experienced by human resources professionals and those in similar roles.

Compassion fatigue is one of those challenges. Human resource managers and business leaders are the go-to people for all things professional, often tasked with knowing all of the answers even when they are searching for them themselves. The American Institute of Stress defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” This stress results from helping or wanting to help those who are under significant emotional duress. The global outbreak of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) is stressful for many. Fear and anxiety about the disease itself can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Similarly, the rapid transition to working from home, the blurred lines of work-life balance, and the worry for loved ones or the economy are felt by many. Business leaders are currently experiencing this stress, but as we learned in our Thought Leadership, they are also experiencing the impact of this stress as it affects their employees. Compassion fatigue differs from burnout in that its onset is rapid and can occur due to exposure of one case or be attributed to a cumulative level of trauma. Similar to burnout however, symptoms of compassion fatigue affect many dimensions of your wellbeing. More specifically one may experience a decrease in cognitive ability but increase in emotional intensity, struggle with their identity or worldview, and maybe feel existential despair or anger.

During our Thought Leadership Hour - we hosted an intentional conversation to check in with how business leaders were currently feeling and/or experiencing compassion fatigue. I have shared common reflections below:

  • Extroverted people who thrive in the office with people are currently struggling at home managing their dispersed remote workforce

  • Introverted humans were built for social isolation, however are realization they might need people more than they once thought

  • Navigating your own emotions while being hyper-aware of what employees working from home are feeling and experiencing and catering to those needs first

  • Mixed messaging in light of company layoffs and furloughing, and boosting morale for those currently working

  • Once a perk, working from home is no longer a work-life balance strategy - it is blurring the lines.

  • Needing to know the answers, but feeling defeated in development of new policies

  • Daily professional responsibilities, daily personal responsibilities, new emerging responsibility on top of managing daily actions and feelings of the masses. The workload is heavier than ever.

  • Utilizing tools and resources for support to maintain culture and connectivity amongst teams, while balancing flexible work hours and employee self-care

One of the overarching themes that was repeatedly named through the session was the realization that “I am not alone.” This group of business leaders with different objectives, challenges, and emotions came together to not only share but support each other. During this difficult season of COVID, in a time of physical distancing and uncertainty, if we can hold onto anything, it should be that you are not weathering the storms alone.

The second half of the group discussion was solutions focused on how we are addressing our needs first so that we can be successful in our role of tending to others. Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Considered to be a simple concept in theory, it often goes overlooked, despite its impact on improved mood and reduced anxiety. So many of our leaders shared different strategies for what they are doing to create work-life balance and establish rituals of self-care. Below is a compilation of strategies shared.

Setting professional self-care boundaries is how you start to achieve work-life balance. What are you doing to assure you are only working when you need to be and not sucked into working when you shouldn't be? First, consider creating a work schedule with built-in breaks. Write it down and block your calendar! Example: Today I am working 8:30am-5pm. I am going to make another cup of coffee at 10:30, take a 30 minute lunch at noon and get 15 minutes of fresh air at 2:30 pm. When you are on break - you are on Do Not Disturb. Either remove work communication from your personal device or turn off your notifications because this time is YOURS.

Bookending your day sounds almost as simple as self-care in theory but with the ongoing daily grind and lack of physical transition between home and office - the lines are blurred between professional and personal rituals. Bookending your day means that you have defined transitions from 1) your morning ritual to the productive/busy part of your day and 2) the productive/busy part of the day to your leisure/family time. The goal is to train yourself to be more focused and productive when you should be productive, then transition so you can fully immerse yourself in relaxation YOU time. Establish how you start and end your day. Step 1: Wake up - rested (after at least 7 hours of sleep). Step 2. Something for you (ex: physical fitness, family breakfast, read the news) Step 3: Transition into your created work schedule with built-in breaks. Step 4: In the last hour of work assess where you are, what is a priority to finish, and what can get pushed. Step 5: Bookend task! One great example shared from one of our wellness experts, Krista Yapp MSW, was a technique she identified as “Brushing the Day Off.” This two-minute mindfulness activity includes the physical movement brushing away the workday and all you’ve encountered. This may include positive or exciting things as well. After logging off for the day, stand up where you are taking a deep inhale, as you exhale use your left hand to brush down your right arm. Repeat with the right hand on the left side; and with both hands down the center of your body. This ritual is wiping away the workday and resetting you for your evening - allowing you to be fully present in your leisure/family time.

Try new things and discover what works for you. I have heard too many times, “we have nothing but time.” This might be true, it is not true for everyone (i.e. people with children, ill loved ones, health care workers), however, we can utilize whatever ‘free time’ we do have trying new things. Reallocating existing free time to activities that have the potential to rejuvenate you, will make your self-care time more rewarding, appear longer, and give you more energy when it is time to return to work. Rather than scrolling on social media during breakfast, try reading “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg (recommended from wellness expert Gary Ware). Instead of rolling out of bed and checking your work email upon opening your eyeballs, head outside for a device-less walk and your morning dose of Vitamin D. Ask the kids or your roommates to help you cook a new recipe or start a challenge with your friends to virtually hike Mt. Machu Picchu (also shoutout to Gary & check out the challenge HERE). You might not have ‘more’ free time but now is definitely the time to discover new things that could spark joy!

If you are thinking - these strategies are not enough, I need more. Keep reading.

For some of our readers and thought leadership participants these strategies are like a completed checklist without a sense of accomplishment. They need something deeper and frankly, I did too. FitPros always wants our community to feel supported, so I reached out to one of FitPros Life Coaches Heather Coros, Founder of the Essential Core, for her advice on how to better assist our community. Essentially I asked - what is the next layer beyond these practices, why are we struggling so much, and how can we combat it. First, Heather shared with me that if basic functioning feels too heavy then professional support may be desired. The alternative is feeling the range of emotions which when in a depressive state, might feel like one is being asked to drink poison. Many of us are starting to run out of “go-to” coping mechanisms that were helping us to this point, making it difficult to know how to keep going. Heather shared, “the process of learning to nurture and love ourselves takes healing, and healing is not as simple as exercising or meditating.” What we are truly seeking when we engage in self-care is how to learn to nurture and love ourselves. Tools such as meditation, yoga, journaling, routine, and mindful eating are not one dimensional, rather they are all “a part of an accumulative process of learning to accept, forgive, and eventually trust ourselves in our own care." This can be difficult in a consumer-based culture of immediate gratification, and we need to understand self-love is a process that requires time and effort.

Many seek out experts to help create a safe container to develop these powerful tools. If this feels right for you, we encourage you to seek professional help through your company's EAP and Benefits Platform or inquire at Hello@fitpros.com about Life Coaching. However, if you are looking to take the first step in your self-love practice today, Heather has suggested finding a space that feels safe and peaceful, close your eyes, and start to work on emotional regulation (which is controlled by breathing into our belly to shift the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system) by repeating the mantra I’m ok. I am safe.

“Both personally and professionally, our only hope of maintaining equanimity is to prioritize compassion and nutrient-dense replenishment. It is essential to reset our nervous system to help regulate the emotional response to the global circumstances.” HERE is a two-minute clip to switch your sympathetic to your parasympathetic nervous system and maintain access to essential parts of the brain that enable curiosity and innovation during stress. “By addressing both the body and mind, we support our whole system to function with ease.”

In conclusion, what you all are experiencing is not easy and we want you to know we see you and we believe in you. Compassion Fatigue can be prevented through Awareness, Balance, and Connections (ABCs). Be aware of what contributes to your stress levels, balance your time helping others with practices that feed your own soul, and establish connections that make you feel safe and supported. I’ll leave you with an Open Letter to Those Working in the HR Space, written by Executive Coach, Claire Seeber. I concur with Claire and want you to know, “You’ve got this. You can do this. I see you.”

Our next Thought Leadership will take place on June 17th at 11:00 am PST.

Topic: Sustaining Productivity During Periods of Uncertainty and Transition

If you would like to join us – please fill out this form or email hello@fitpros.com. We would love to have you! Additionally, if you are looking to elevate your virtual communities with a remote worker care package and/or virtual solutions reach out to your wellbeing manager or email us!


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