June 14, 2024

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Managing Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: A Key Skill in Healthcare and Trauma Care

Healthcare professionals — particularly those working in trauma — face intense pressure as they care for patients, many of whom may be going through the most difficult days of their lives. As a result, these care providers may find themselves experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue, which involve the physical, emotional and mental toll that caring for others can take on someone.

Joel Jackson, UChicago Medicine’s Director of Inclusion and Equity Strategies within the Urban Health Initiative, is a trained compassion fatigue facilitator. He has developed and delivered compassion fatigue training programs for UChicago Medicine that have benefited employees, and in turn, the patients they care for.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a concerted effort was made to provide UChicago Medicine employees with resources to manage compassion fatigue and build resilience, which is the ability to adapt in the face of life’s stressors and hardships. Since the launch of this programming in April 2020, more than 1,400 employees have participated in compassion fatigue and resilience training, both in-person and virtually. This includes care providers from the adult and pediatric emergency departments and the Violence Recovery Program.

One program recently offered is the Resilience-Based Care Skills Training Course. This eight-week course is administered to both clinical and non-clinical faculty and staff throughout the University of Chicago Medical Center. As of March 2023, 70 employees have taken part in this course.

The course focuses on how to build resilience skills in the face of burnout and compassion fatigue. Burnout is characterized by low job satisfaction and the feeling that one’s work has no impact. Some of the first signs of burnout can feel like a bad mood. Low energy, fatigue, and feeling agitated in the workplace can often be chalked up to a bad day, or even a bad week. However, not addressing these feelings early on and compounding them with chronic stress can accelerate a state of burnout.

Those dealing with burnout may not only experience physical symptoms; they may also feel a sense of defeat, like their work doesn’t matter. Having a constant cynical viewpoint of one’s work is a strong indicator of professional burnout.

Compassion fatigue occurs when a person who is already suffering from burnout also experiences secondary traumatic stress.

Secondary traumatic stress involves the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand trauma experiences of someone else, according to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including anxiety, anger, guilt, and sleep and appetite changes, among others.

Trauma care providers can be affected by burnout and compassion fatigue because of the frequency with which they experience secondhand traumatic events.

“Most professional caregivers suffer from compassion fatigue at some point in their career and most professionals in general suffer from burnout at some point, too,” said Jackson. “This course teaches skills on how to manage burnout, stress, compassion fatigue, and how to mitigate their effects.”

The course also emphasizes the qualities that can help a person feel more resilient and gives participants the knowledge to determine what is and isn’t within their control. One participant of the course noted, “I learned how lowering my level of stress can help me provide better care to my patients and help my own health.”

Christine Goggins, MFA, is the Lead Violence Recovery Specialist at the University of Chicago Medical Center and is familiar with the effects of burnout and compassion fatigue.

As part of the Violence Recovery Program, Goggins provides direct care to patients who have experienced intentional violence, along with their family members. She recognizes how the heavy impact of her work can contribute to a state of burnout. Goggins took part in the training course and found the skills useful in addressing how she was feeling.

For example, course facilitators teach self-regulation tactics to help participants learn to physiologically shift away from a “flight or fight” response to a more thoughtful response when faced with a stressful situation.

“The key thing was actually just being able to name it. That way I could recognize the signs of burnout and I had the tools to be able to deal with it,” said Goggins. “Our work is very stressful and traumatic so having that training was paramount for us.”

Jackson and his team share testimonials and feedback from course participants with Medical Center leadership and are exploring ways to increase participation in the course across the organization. For example, UChicago Medicine’s Employee Engagement Survey includes a resilience index for each department, which could help indicate which departments may most benefit from participating in the Resilience-Based Care Course.

“None of us are alone,” said Jackson. “We can support each other as a team.”