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Compassion Fatigue in Youth Work and Ways to Manage it

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Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that many youth workers will likely experience from time to time. Sometimes, the demands of your job might feel overwhelming. And you may feel completely depleted.

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    What is compassion fatigue

    Compassion fatigue is when someone feels emotionally, mentally, and physically drained by caring for others. So, it's like having a battery that's run out of energy because you've been giving so much to others. This happens especially to people in human services professions, such as teachers, medical professionals, caregivers, and youth workers, like you.

    No doubt, you had good intentions and lots of optimism when you started working with young people. But over time, the emotional labor, the low pay, and the long hours can cause burnout, compassion fatigue, and resentment for the job.

    Sometimes the feeling of resentment might even overflow to your coworkers and the young people you are working with. You might feel underappreciated by young people even when you are committed to helping them.  After some years, the demands of the profession can cause even the most passionate youth workers to become disillusioned. And this can affect your ability to do your job and show up for your young people.

    Be aware of these signs to protect yourself

    It's important to know the signs of compassion fatigue. When you notice any of these signs, it’s crucial that you pay attention to them. Because you can help yourself by addressing them early. And that helps you show up for the young people you serve every day. Here are some things to look out for:

    • Feeling constantly tired, even after a good night's sleep
    • Getting frustrated or easily angry with a young person
    • Losing your empathy
    • Not wanting to do things you usually enjoy and isolating yourself from others
    • Feeling sad or crying a lot
    • Having trouble sleeping or having bad dreams
    • Feeling powerless and helpless
    • Beginning to get a lot of complaints about your attitude or performance at work
    • Difficulty concentrating and being productive
    • Health difficulties like upset stomach, headaches, anxiety, depression

    Any of these signs of compassion fatigue might even make you feel guilty. And at times, you might feel that you are failing your young people, coworkers, and supervisors. Remember that compassion fatigue is a very common experience for youth workers and that you are not alone.

    What you can do to prevent or address warning signs

    Here are a few tips to help prevent compassion fatigue and care for yourself if you’re already experiencing it.

    • Take breaks – Do enjoyable activities and hobbies that help you feel better.
    • Talk to someone – Share your feelings with a friend, family member, coworker, mentor or supervisor. They can listen and offer support.
    • Practice relaxation - Breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga can help calm your mind and body, and reduce stress.
    • Set boundaries - It's important to know when to say "no" especially when you're feeling overwhelmed.
    • Get enough rest - Make sure you're getting enough sleep. It's like recharging your battery so you have more energy to help others.
    • Eat healthy foods – Fruits, vegetables, and balanced meals give you the energy you need for the day.
    • Exercise - Go for a walk, play sports, or dance like nobody’s watching! It will help you feel better both physically and mentally.
    • Increase your skills – If you feel less competent to do your job, you are more at risk for compassion fatigue. So, keep learning and developing your skills as a youth work professional.

    To learn more about how to manage stress and improve your self-care, please check out YIPA’s training, Meditative Movements to Self-Regulate and De-escalate.

    About the author

    Yedidya Erque is the operations associate of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA), a non-profit association of youth-serving organizations. We're your source for exceptional, affordable, personal and professional online learning via The Professional Youth Worker.  Join us!

    To ask Yedidya a question or share your feedback about this blog, email yedidya@yipa.org.

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