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Let’s Talk About Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma

Helping professionals do an excellent job of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, when we look in the mirror, we are not quite as good at applying those same stigma-fighting and self-compassion principles. There is a tendency for helpers to place the needs of others above their own needs.

We will fight incredibly hard to help others enjoy peace, health and their human rights, but in order to do so we often compromise our own peace, health and human rights. We spend our working days carefully listening to the needs of others, deaf to the screams of our own hearts and bodies. Ashamed of the humanness that has prevented us from living up to the SuperHero image of helping professionals, we are wary of sharing our own stories.

Unwilling to share our vulnerable selves, the stories we do release for public consumption are often so heavily edited the end result resembles little more than a “once upon a time” fairytale. Let’s not contribute to the all-too-common fairytales about what it’s like to work as a helping professional. Instead, let’s talk about how it really feels to face the darkest corners of human life (and death).

Let’s talk about burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma.

If we don’t, they will become the bogeymen that consume us. My own story of Vicarious Trauma began suddenly in 2006 when I was working as a Child Protection Officer. My ears and eyes were filled with the sounds and images of broken babies. My hands were filled with paperwork and my head was too full, too busy, to do anything except meet the deadlines that came thick and fast from all directions. The bogeyman that bit into me refused to let go and evolved into a full-blown eating disorder.

From 2008 to 2011, I was hospitalised twice and worked hard to heal my body. From 2012 to 2016, I worked hard to find the words I’d buried, match them with feelings, piece it all together and also work up the courage to share my precious story with strangers.

Without a doubt, the research and writing I undertook during those four years were the most agonising and significant steps I took towards recovery. I began by researching anorexia. Up until my mid twenties, I’d enjoyed healthy eating patterns and body image. How was it possible for such a person to suddenly stop eating? I started with the book “Eating Disorders in Adult Women” (edited by Julian Fuchs, 2008) and moved on to the wealth of research from Steven Levenkron.

There were many references to eating disorders stemming from Trauma, but I rejected the theory that my eating disorder was the result of this. Trauma was, I told myself, something that happened to survivors of war or whose lives had been threatened under the most horrific of circumstances. I refused to minimise the awfulness of their experience by including myself within their number.

Perhaps what happened to me was “just burnout”. I pulled out Christina Maslach and referred to her extensive research on the topic. Her descriptions of burnout were familiar but didn’t quite fit my symptoms. Again, there were plenty of references to Trauma. Fine. I piled my bedside table with all the classics on Trauma – Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Babette Rothschild – never believing I’d find myself living within their pages. I did. I knew about Trauma, of course. I’d learned the basics at university and had applied the theories when working with clients who’d experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or childhood abuse.

Reading these books was a completely different experience and everything I thought I knew about Trauma was turned on its head. I read the theories as if I were reading them for the first time. Now, I didn’t just understand the words, I felt them and knew them to be true. Since releasing “Selfless: a social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery” I’ve been privileged to hear many people tell me about their own experiences of burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Trauma.

It’s been wonderful to be part of this burgeoning web of storytelling and it has strengthened me more than I ever thought possible. It’s my dearest wish that my book will start a conversation about how to improve the support we provide to our frontline helping professionals. There is so much more that can be done. Let’s show how much value we place on the essential services they provide.

Written by Kristen Holzapfel

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Kristen Holzapfel is the author of "Selfless" where she writes about her work on the frontline of social work and how, after several years in this relentlessly fast-paced environment, she developed symptoms of Vicarious Trauma. Read more about "Selfless: a social worker's own story of trauma and recovery" at www.kholzapfel.com

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