Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Transforming Compassion Fatigue: Key Strategies for Helpers and Caregivers

Family caregivers often have to juggle many competing demands: caring for their child with special needs, meeting the needs of the rest of the family, work, household chores, remembering everyone’s birthday, balancing their budget, doing groceries, medical appointments, the list goes on and on.  As a result, they may stop taking part in their own leisure activities and physical exercise, or in any activity that isn’t “functional.” They can end up feeling drained, discouraged, irritable and even depressed. When caregivers run out of steam, we call it Compassion Fatigue: a form of burnout that affects caregivers and helping professionals who are offering help and support to those in need.

Compassion fatigue can lead to profound shifts in the way caregivers view the world and their loved ones. They may become dispirited and increasingly cynical, they may fight more frequently with their spouse or may lose patience with their kids. It has been shown that, when we are suffering from compassion fatigue, we work harder and harder. What suffers is our health and our relationship with others.

I am a compassion fatigue specialist and mental health counselor. I have spent the bulk of the last decade studying the phenomenon of compassion fatigue and burnout in professionals and family caregivers. I have the privilege of travelling across the country nearly every week, offering educational workshops to helpers of all stripes. During these workshops, I get to meet and talk with hundreds of helpers and many of them speak of the incredible emotional depletion they are feeling. I have done a great deal of writing about compassion fatigue and strategies and solutions that can help. I would like to offer you a few strategies here. If you are interested in hearing more about this topic, please email me: whp@cogeco.ca and I will aim to reply to your questions in my next blog post, next month.

Here are five key strategies for staying afloat:

1.Take Stock: What’s on your plate?

To make changes and improvements, you need to know where the problem areas are. Make a list of all the demands on your time and energy (Work, Family, Home, Health, Volunteering, other). Try to make this as detailed as you can. Once you have the list, take a look at it. What stands out? What factors are contributing to making your plate too full? What would you like to change most?  What is most realistically changeable?

2. Find time for yourself every day

Are you currently able to get away for periods of time? Do you have access to respite care?  Even small changes can make a difference in a busy caregiver’s life. Make sure you do one nourishing activity each day. This could be having a 30 minute bath with no one bothering you, going out to a movie, or, if you are doing a lot of the caregiving work alone, it could simply mean taking 10 minutes during a quiet time to sit and relax. Don’t wait until all the dishes are done and the counter is clean to take time off. Take it when you can, and make the most of it.

 3. Delegate -  learn to ask for help

Are there things that you are willing to let go and let others do their own way?  Don’t expect others to read your mind: consider holding a regular family meeting to review the workload and discuss new options. Think of this: If you became ill and were in hospital for the next two weeks, who would look after things on the home front?

4. Get some support

There are times when we all need support and validation. By openly discussing and recognizing compassion fatigue, caregivers can normalise this problem for one another. Consider joining or creating a support group or seek counselling.

5. Look after the Basic Three: Eating, Sleeping, Exercise

-Make sure you are eating nutritious meals that are low in salt, fat and sugar

-Walk 30 minutes three times a week

-Try to get 8 hours of sleep every night or as often as you can

-Lower your caffeine intake

Compassion fatigue is no one’s fault: it is a natural and predictable effect of the work of caring for others in need. It is in fact a sign that much of the work has been well done. It can also be used as a wake up call that improved self-care is necessary. Committing to realistic and reasonable self care goals can, over time, make a world of difference in the life of a helper and in fact benefit the whole family.


Françoise Mathieu is the author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook. She is a Certified Mental Health Counsellor and Compassion Fatigue Specialist. Françoise offers workshops and consultation to agencies on topics related to compassion fatigue, wellness and self care. For more info: www.compassionfatigue.ca, email: whp@cogeco.ca.

(A longer version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Solutions: Home Healthcare and Wellness Magazine.)


  1. The universe is clearly trying to tell me something. I just wrote about this on my blog last night (the fatigue, etc.) and here, today, voila! Thank you for this very important post. I have shared it with my twitter & fb friends.

  2. Thank you for attending to this subject again and for reminding we caregivers of what we face and what we need to do. I am going to pay closer attention.