January 27, 2020 Practice Points

Battling Compassion Fatigue: When the Helper Needs Help

A few tips for managing this mental health issue before it becomes symptomatic.

By Kelsey Heino

Many lawyers enter the field because they want to help people, to make a difference; what is often not anticipated is the toll such self-sacrifice can take. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions, and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled compassion fatigue. The condition has been defined as an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

Recognizing the symptoms and addressing them head-on is crucial to a healthy practice.

Recognizing the symptoms and addressing them head-on is crucial to a healthy practice.

PeopleImages/E+ via Getty Images

How can attorneys avoid compassion fatigue and its side effects? Here are a few tips for managing the issue before it becomes symptomatic.

  1. Recognize the warning signs. It’s almost a cliché how often more seasoned attorneys will tell the idealistic young guns, “Wait a few years—it’ll change.” They’ve seen it all, heard it all, and nothing shocks them anymore. With that knowledge comes disenchantment, and experienced attorneys too often no longer enjoy the career they’ve chosen. If you catch yourself constantly complaining or in a negative mood when at work; if your after-work drink has turned into a nightly bottle of wine; if you constantly have a cold; if you’re popping Tums like candy every time you have to go to a client meeting—you might be experiencing compassion fatigue. Listening to and helping others with their problems day in and day out is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. That’s why the symptoms of compassion fatigue often mirror those of exhaustion or depression. And it doesn’t just affect individuals; high absenteeism, increased workers’ compensation incidents, and high turnover are all signs your firm is suffering the effects of an emotionally overworked staff.
  2. Address the issue. Once you realize there’s a problem, it’s important to do a self-analysis (even if it is actually a professional helping you work through the issue). Identifying the root cause is an important first step. If you treat the symptom without addressing the cause, it’s like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. There’s going to be bleed-through, and fast. What specific aspects of your job are triggering the symptoms—client meetings, court appearances, contract negotiations? Is there a way to delegate those tasks to someone else? Can you find an activity that counteracts the negative effects?
  3. Everyday approaches. If you’re in a position where you cannot delegate the problematic tasks or if every part of your job causes some stress, it’s important to have healthy coping mechanisms in place. Perhaps most important of these is learning to say no, or at least “no, but.” If your caseload is too high or you’re simply not capable of meeting a specific deadline, say so. At minimum, it sets the expectation that the task may not get done in the preferred timeframe (if you have to take it on anyway due to budget/staffing issues), but ideally the task can be reassigned to lighten your load. Other ideas include a weekly debrief with a colleague or friend (of course keeping confidentiality in mind), volunteering with an organization that sparks your passion, using a reward system (getting Starbucks before each client meeting so that it’s something you look forward to), and journaling or setting aside time for a gratitude practice.
  4. Ask for help. Sometimes small steps are not enough. If you’ve been suffering from compassion fatigue for too long without addressing the problem, you may need outside help to begin healing. Whether that takes the form of hiring on additional staff to assist with overload or seeking a therapist or counselor, it’s ok to not be able to fix it yourself. Just as you’d hire an electrician to fix faulty wiring in your house (I hope!) it is equally important to find the right help for this problem. Your bar association may have resources through its Lawyer Assistance Program, or you may consider getting a reference from a colleague.

Compassion fatigue may be a newly-recognized condition, but it has been a reality in the legal profession from day one. Recognizing the symptoms and addressing them head-on is crucial to a healthy practice.

Kelsey Heino is an employment litigation attorney with the Omaha office of Woods Aitken, LLP. 


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