Research

Caring jobs linked to burnout and ‘compassion fatigue’

Social workers providing care and support to people in distress are at risk of developing compassion fatigue, which is a risk factor for a deterioration in their own mental health, according to a new study published in Occupational Medicine journal.

Researchers surveyed 306 social workers, measuring three aspects of compassion on mental health -  emotional demands, compassion satisfaction and fatigue and self-compassion. The study found that compassion fatigue was a risk factor for the mental health of social workers. It was also associated with higher rates of sickness absence, high staff turnover, low morale and impaired professional judgment. The authors indicated it is likely that compassion fatigue does not occur solely due to a social workers providing empathetic care; it is likely that organisational factors such as inadequate resources, a lack of training and feedback is also contributing.

Study author Dr Gail Kinman said: “Compassion fatigue can have a negative effect on job performance as it is strongly linked to poor mental health, difficulties forming relationships with service users, errors and mistakes, poor quality decision making, absence from work and poor staff retention. There should be an emphasis on organisational change to ensure optimum staffing levels and more emphasis on self-care in initial and continuing education for health and social care practitioners.” She added: “It is important to help social workers to develop self-compassion and a 'tool box' of effective self-care strategies in order to avoid compassion fatigue.  The need to care for the self as well as others should be emphasised from the early stages of training, and evidence-based interventions in university curriculums will assist in achieving this.”

A second study found almost a third of UK doctors may be suffering from burnout, stress and compassion fatigue. A&E doctors and GPs are the most likely to feel burnt out and have the highest levels of exhaustion and stress, found the survey, published in the BMJ Open journal.
Read more: G Kinman, L Grant. Emotional demands, compassion and mental health in social workers, [Full article] Occupational Medicine, volume 69, issue 1, January 2020. (in Special issue: Mental health and work, Nicola McKinley and others. Resilience, burnout and coping mechanisms in UK doctors: a cross-sectional study, [Full article] BMJ Open, volume 10, issue 1, e031765, 2020.

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