Local agencies help staff deal with compassion fatigue

EDITOR NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series highlighting compassion fatigue and how local agencies help their staff and volunteers through it.

Many agencies who deal with people in need or crisis have had employees, staff and even volunteers who have experienced compassion fatigue. A few local agencies who are familiar with compassion fatigue offered insight into what it’s like and how they help their staff deal with it.

Captain Chas Engel, corp commanding officer, and Amy McGovern, social service program coordinator at the Williamsport Salvation Army, are very familiar with the condition.

McGovern said the Salvation Army are on the cutting edge of dealing with the condition. She had been trained to help combat it, and Captain Engal also has a full power point presentation on it, but also has experienced it himself.

McGovern said she first became aware of it last year, while in training and said she received a lot of insight on how to combat it and know if employees are suffering from it.

Vickie Stryker, executive director with the Lycoming County SPCA, said she had learned about compassion fatigue about eight years ago and attending a workshop to help her understand it more and how to help staff who may get it.

“In the spring and summer when its our busiest time we definitely get it. Larry (Woltz) gets it. He gets so frustrated and it gets to be a challenge,” she said.

Woltz, is the shelter’s humane officer and is often doing investigations of neglect.

“Some of these poor animals that come in tug at your heart strings,” she said, which can add to the stress.

Vanessa Hunter, social and economic empowerment director with the YWCA, said it happens to staff there.

“We deal with people in crisis, all the time, every day, all day long – it is what we do,” she said.

Because there is so much need, and those that are caring for others, tend to forget to care for themselves, Hunter said.

Like the YWCA, the Salvation Army are dealing with people who are in extreme need.

“We see people often times at their worst, when they are coming in and asking for the basic essentials, like food or clothing,” McGovern said.

Sometimes those seeking help at the Salvation Army are going through something traumatic.

“And they are trying to put the pieces back together,” she added.

Sometimes when helping, it’s hard not to connect to something people are enduring.

“That can be very draining for you. It’s hard to not get caught up with what they are going through. We can all relate to pain at some point,” McGovern said.

“You don’t put it on the shelf and come back. You take it home, you worry, are they safe are they OK,” Hunter said.

When an agency deals directly with the public it can be tough for staff or employees when the public becomes dissatisfied, and may turn and blame the agency for their problems or lack of help.

“You have to deal with the public when they are dissatisfied and yelling at shelter employees and staff,” Stryker said.

Animal shelter employees experience stress for many other reasons, Stryker said.

“People have a very strong attachment to their animals and of course it’s difficult for them sometimes,” she said. “We do euthanasias here.”

She said to be clear, at the Lycoming SPCA they do not euthanasia dogs for space, but cats are euthanized because there are so many sometimes.

“Our employees have to deal with euthanasia of a healthy adoptable cat or kitten,” she said, “and then the public’s response to that.”

Capt. Engel agrees that the public’s reactions can weigh heavy on a person.

“What even wears you out more is when you can’t help someone and then they blame you,” he said “You want to take it personally, but can’t. The abuse, it can eat you alive.”

All these things can become difficult.

“You pile all that on top … you have people that are compassionate and caring and they have to deal with these poor and unfortunate animals. You have to deal with people who do not

understand what we do here, why we do it, or how we do it. It can be difficult,” Stryker said.

“Other research has identified various stressors and risk of compassion fatigue in hospice and palliative care workers. Risk factors can include constant exposure to death, inadequate time with dying patients, growing workload, inadequate coping with their own emotional response to the dying, increasing number of deaths, communication difficulties with dying patients and families, and feelings of grief, depression and guilt,” said Stephanie G. King, adult psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner in behavioral health, at Susquehanna Health, Divine Providence Hospital.

Hunter said dealing with those in crisis can wear one down, especially if you don’t properly care for yourself.

“The nature of our business – it can be tough. If you don’t get the support and process it,” Hunter said, “then compassion fatigue can set in.”


Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include:

-Feeling estranged from others (Having difficulty sharing or describing feelings with others).

-Difficulty falling or staying asleep.

-Outbursts of anger or irritability with little provocation.

-Startling easily.

-Flashbacks connected to clients and families.

-Needing closer friends.-feeling there is no one to talk with about highly stressful experiences.

-Working too hard.

-Feeling frightened of things traumatized people and their family have said or done.

-Experiencing troubling dreams similar to a client’s.

-Experiencing intrusive thoughts of sessions with especially difficult clients and their families.

-Suddenly and involuntarily recalling a frightening experience while working with a client or their family.

-Preoccupation with a client or their family.

-Losing sleep over a client and their family’s traumatic experiences.

-Feeling trapped by working as a helper.

-Feeling a sense of hopelessness associated with working with clients and their families.

-Feeling weak, tired, and rundown related to work.

-Being unsuccessful at separating work from personal life.

-Feeling little compassion toward most co-workers.

-Thoughts of not succeeding at achieving life goals.

-Feeling as though one is working more for the money than for personal fulfillment.

-Finding it difficult separating personal life from work life.

-A sense of worthlessness/disillusionment/resentment associated with work.

– Provided by Stephanie G. King, adult psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, in behavioral health, at Susquehanna Health, Divine Prodvience Hospital