Professionals who work directly with individuals who have intensive mental health needs can sometimes find themselves affected by this work in ways they had not originally considered. Along with compassion satisfaction (CS) professionals may also experience burnout or compassion fatigue (CF). CS is the positive feeling that can come from helping others, while burnout and CF are the negative results of this work. They can be identified by feelings of tension or psychological stressors caused from working with others who have experienced trauma. Research has shown that both burnout and CF can lead to a decrease in CS, resulting in a greater use of sick time, higher staff turnover rates, and lower morale among professionals.
Research has also identified 6 areas of work life that can result in burnout if they do not match with the individual. These include the individual’s work load, the amount of control the individual has in making important decisions about their job, the rewards an individual receives for doing the work, the worker’s sense of community regarding relationships with supervisors and co-workers, fairness perceived through openness and respect present within the organization, and a congruence between an individual’s values and those of the organization.
The study conducted by Ray, Wong, White, and Heaslip hypothesized that higher levels of CS and increased person-job match would result in lower levels of burnout and CF. This was based on the idea that higher levels of CS would result in a more positive work environment or better match between person and areas of work life. Those who reported higher levels of CF would perceive their work environment as more negative and would have a lower match level between person and areas of work resulting in higher levels of burnout
The researchers surveyed 169 individuals providing “frontline care” to individuals with mental health needs. Respondents included nursing staff, social workers, psychologists, case managers, and mental health workers. Each participant was asked to complete the Compassion Satisfaction and Compassion Fatigue/Secondary Traumatic Stress subscales of the Professional Quality of Life – Revision IV Questionnaire, the Areas of Work Life Scale, the Maslach Burnout Inventory – General Survey, and a 16-question demographic questionnaire.
Their results supported the hypothesis that higher levels of CS, lower levels of CF, and higher person-job match in the six areas of work life were predictive of lower burnout in frontline staff providing mental health care. This study found similar results to other studies where it was reported that work life conditions can contribute to both CS, CF, and burnout. It is noted that those employees who reported a personal history of trauma may need to receive additional support or supervision to help combat CF and burnout. Along with trauma history, working more hours and having less work experience were also identified as potential risk factors for CF.
Ways to help prevent burnout and CF while also increasing CS include building stronger relationships among colleagues, promotion opportunities, and greater awareness of workers’ emotions. Environments with a low staff/patient ratio and emotional distance between staff and patients also lead to an increase in CS. Environments that can pair new staff with mentors or promote more relationship building between new and senior staff may also serve as protective factors against CF and burnout.
Ray, S. L., Wong, C., White, D., & Heaslip, K. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue, work life conditions, and burnout among frontline mental health care professionals. Traumatology, 19(4), 255-267. doi:10.1177/1534765612471144
Crystal Henson, MA