The Antidote to Burnout is Not “Self-Care”

Apr 12, 2022

By Russ Turner, Director, People Incorporated Training Institute 

Burnout-Compassion FatigueSince the mid-1990, the human service field has paid increasingly close attention to Compassion Fatigue, the idea that continual empathic exposure to trauma narratives leaves workers exhausted and ‘not quite themselves.’ This set of theories is also referred to as caregiver fatigue, vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and various other names. The emerging field wrestles with what’s going on. Now people everywhere seem to be talking again about “burnout,” the umbrella term that includes all the above plus the general feeling of fed up-ness about work and life. It is proffered that the “Great American Resignation” is proof of its omnipresence.

The traditional advice given to workers suffering the effects of compassion fatigue (and its grandmother burnout) is “self-care,” that annoying set of Good Things You’re Supposed to Be Doing – eating well, getting your rest, exercising – sound familiar? Next came Resiliency and an adjacent set of skills that allow a person to intentionally reset their flailing autonomic nervous systems with proactive self-interventions that improve vagal tone and calm you down. Think mindful breathing, grounding, dancing, music, yoga, and running (yes, exercise is always good). Don’t get me wrong, all of these are good, all of them work, and I would recommend them all, but there is a massive elephant in the room. Can you spot it? The tired and overwhelmed individual now has a whole list of extra things to do for self-care when they’re already exhausted and overwhelmed!

I make a deal with my students in Compassion Fatigue classes: when we get to the ‘what to do about it’ part, I won’t add anything to your plate, only take things away. So here we go. Let’s remove those earbuds when you’re out running or walking the dog. You don’t need any more information or stimulation at that time; you need to be with the dog, the fresh air, the sounds, etc. Let’s turn off the music and news stations in the car while commuting. It’s time to breathe mindfully (you’re breathing anyway) and focus on the road. Let’s remove the social media apps from your smartphone so they don’t tempt you to feed that addiction all day long. Using social media, especially all day long on a smartphone, has been linked with increases in anxiety, depression, and suicide. While we’re on the phone, please go to your notification settings, turn all of them off, and make your phone silent. Each time your phone notifies you of something, it fires off a tiny stress response and interrupts your focus from what you’re doing. This week, say No to a couple of things. You don’t need to join another committee, and it’s okay to turn down a meeting with someone you don’t really have time for (this will give you some space to say Yes to things you actually want to do). Lastly, let’s consume less news; you’re set once you know what’s going on.

The real antidote to burnout is a feeling of competency and confidence in what you’re doing. Once you’ve removed what you don’t need, you can add things back in where you feel competent, in control, and content. This is the pathway out of burnout. Oh, and yoga if you’re so inclined.

Caregiver Fatigue is one of many courses available to the public through People Incorporated’s Training Institute. These classes offer affordable, quality training taught by experts in their field.

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