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Compassion Fatigue

October 24, 2023

Restaurants, grocery stores, banks, convenience stores, and retail shops all have one thing in common: a frontline workforce who interacts with customers every single day.

At ADDO, we serve many of these kinds of businesses. Most of them have a corporate office and then many different geographically dispersed locations, with customer-facing workforces. 

Leaders in these corporate offices are working hard to inspire their frontline workers, and this is where we step in and help. We work to help them connect meaning to their work, even when it is hard—because serving the general public isn’t easy!

However, we are finding that there are two fields in particular who are struggling more than others to inspire their people: healthcare and education.

On the surface, this doesn’t make sense. Healthcare workers enter that industry to help people who are sick or hurting, and educators enter their field to make a difference in students’ lives. They are very clearly making a real-time impact, so why can’t they see it? Why are they so difficult to inspire?

It’s because they suffer from compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is being worn down by constantly caring for the needs of others.

Though it existed before the pandemic, this fatigue has greatly intensified because of the lingering effects of COVID-19 on these groups of people and their jobs.

Even though we are three years removed from the first COVID cases, reports indicate that not just doctors and nurses are experiencing burnout, but every level of the healthcare workforce.

The same is true in education. Post-COVID burnout and anxiety are at an all time high for teachers. One study found that U.S. teachers were 40 percent more likely to report anxiety symptoms than healthcare workers! You don’t need me to tell you that teachers are stressed.

So we know that healthcare workers and educators suffer from compassion fatigue, but other people are prone to this, as well. When employees are exhausted, they need inspiration. So what can you do to help?

One of the most important ways to inspire those struggling from compassion fatigue is to keep them focused on and connected to their mission. Here are three practical ways to encourage them:

1. Use the power of one.
If you ask people today how many people died in the Holocaust, most of them can’t tell you. But if you ask them if they have heard of Anne Frank, almost every one would say yes. Data can be emotionally disconnected, so it’s important to tell individual stories that help confirm the impact of the work they are doing. It could be one student who was failing as a freshman and is now going to be the first member of his family to go to college. It could be one patient whose injury could have bound her to a wheelchair, but because of the skilled work of surgeons and care of doctors and nurses, she is walking and able to have a normal life. Leverage the power of one in your organization.

2. Shift the methods or the medium.
Mix up the mediums you are using to share stories with your team. Instead of the talking head at your weekly meeting, consider hiring a video team to capture a story to share with your team or hire a writer to find and share inspiring stories on a blog you can send out to your team. Another great thing about shifting the medium is that other forms of communication can also be shared with the people you serve!

3. Go back to the Why.
Ask your team members to tell you why they took this job in the first place. Remind them of their original desire to impact the lives of others. There are times when my wife gets frustrated because I don’t know where my keys are, and she always says, “Go back to the last place you remember having them.” We need to do the same thing when it comes to our passion: “When was the last time you had that passion?” It’s amazing how remembering when we were inspired in the past helps inspire us in the present.

If you’re in education, healthcare, or any other position suffering from compassion fatigue, thank you for reading, and thank you for the work you are doing. My hope is that you’ll be inspired to keep going. Your work matters, and you’re making a difference.

If you’re a leader working to inspire a team of people who are experiencing compassion fatigue, I’m so glad you’re reading. I hope you’ll work hard to inspire others. Be creative and help connect the work they are doing to something much bigger than themselves. You know their work matters, so remind them that they matter to you too. 


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