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Social Work -- How Emotional Overload Leads to Compassion Fatigue

Posted by Brian Spence on Jan 23, 2017 8:00:00 AM

Compassion Fatigue, Social Work, Behavioral HealthPeople who choose to go into social work start their careers motivated with a sense of hope and the sincere desire to help people, to alleviate suffering. They are educated and dedicated, drawn to the field by a natural inclination to kindness and charity. They go into social services because they want to help people; but more and more they end up needing help themselves.

Burnout is a growing problem among social workers. Their clients are people in desperate need, often abused and troubled with any number of psychological trauma.

Clients look to the these workers to save them from the bad things that are happening to them, or that might happen. Crisis is something they deal with on a daily basis and being responsible for keeping vulnerable people safe is draining.

Witnessing the sadness and fear in the faces of their clients overloads the emotional systems. Case loads are ever increasing and there is never enough they can do, and there is never a shortage of people who want their help. 

“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” (Remen,1996)

The decisions these caregivers make impact men, women, children and families. Often they are limited by the resources that are available. Pressured by the demands of their superiors and pressured by the clients who are pinning their hopes on them, social workers are caught up in a perfect storm of unreasonable expectations. Someone is going to be disappointed and hold them responsible.

The buildup of emotional tension over years can cause severe distress. Often workers are exhausted by this occupational stress. It affects every aspect of their lives; in fact 48% of the this workforce in the United States experiences high levels of personal distress as a result of their work.

Those negative emotions have to be dealt with one way or the other. Maladaptive responses such as stifling feelings, denying them will become more severe, and can and does lead to depression and detrimental behaviors, such as substance abuse. Compassion Fatigue results from these high levels of stress.

How can these workers prevent or treat Compassion Fatigue? Being aware is the first step. Understanding that it happens in many helping professions makes it easier to seek help. Self-care is essential to remain healthy and stable.

Social workers know the effectiveness of therapy, and should avail themselves of those resources. Administrators and supervisors must also take responsibility for the health and welfare of their workforce and are required by the Code of Ethics to provide help for colleagues.

Despite the stressors associated with this profession, many see it as their calling. If you are such a person and need help finding a position in the Behavioral Health filed, please contact us.


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Staffing Plus is a premier healthcare staffing firm that provides temporary, per diem, temp-to-hire and permanent Staffing Solutions for Behavioral Health, Education, and Healthcare settings. We have leveraged decades of experience to assist organizations with the challenges of managing their HR and Recruiting needs.