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Occupational Therapy and Compassion Fatigue: How to Help the Caregiver Get Care

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Occupational Therapy and Compassion Fatigue: How to help the caregiver get care
By Randi Johnson Hanson MSRS, OTR/L

The topic of “Compassion Fatigue” has been a hot topic within the caregiving profession of nursing in the past decade. Joinson (1992) defines compassion fatigue as “a unique and expanded form of burnout in which the environmental stressors of the workplace coupled with the patient’s physical and emotional needs contributes to the caregiver becoming tired, depressed, angry, ineffective, apathetic and detached”. Given the psychosocial demands of occupational therapy as a hands-on caregiving profession, it is my proposal that we look at compassion fatigue within the realm of O.T. and how to help prevent it and how to refresh and renew ourselves in order to best meet our patient’s needs.
As an occupational therapist, part of our practice involves helping our patients determine what their optimal level of function is given any underlying deficits. We may see people with psychological deficits (TBI, DD, and mental illness), physical deficits and age related deficits and it is our job to get them “back to the highest level of independence possible”. As with any caring profession, as OT’s we may take on the burdens and issues of our patients as our own. Under normal circumstances, this can be helpful in planning goals and treatment modalities, but if we start to experience compassion fatigue, we may be actually internalizing the traumas of our patients to the point that we ourselves feel physical, emotional or mental fatigue and exhaustion.
Some of the hallmark symptoms of compassion fatigue are: sadness and grief, nightmares, avoidance (of patients or work), GI complaints, muscle aches, increased frustration with patients and workplace, irritability and decreased job satisfaction. One of the best ways to work out episodes of compassion fatigue is to develop a “self care plan” in order to best balance demands of work and home life while keeping one’s self healthy. Caregivers need to take “me time” in order to develop their own sense of self worth and keep the domains of their life (physical, emotional, spiritual, social and family) in balance.
Caregivers need to remind themselves to take care of their own basic needs first: eating well and eating enough, staying hydrated, achieving a good night’s sleep and engaging in physical activity to keep the body healthy and serve as a tension reliever. Another helpful way to deal with compassion fatigue is to find colleagues that you can idea share with and have active listening sessions. Allow yourself to grieve if needed: as caregivers we form powerful bonds with our patients and grief is an inevitable part of life that we also need to find time for to give ourselves closure. Adding humor to one’s day is also an essential tool to help alleviate stress.
Even though empathy and compassion are central factors to being an OT, it is essential to remember to take “care of the caregiver” and prioritize your own needs to be fulfilled as well as those of your patient caseload.

References
Aycock, N. & Boyle, D. (2008). Interventions to Manage Compassion Fatigue in Oncology Nursing. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 13(2), 183-191.
Bush, N.J. (2009). Compassion Fatigue: Are You at Risk?. Oncology Nursing Forum, 36(1), 24-28.
Joinson, C. (1992). Coping with compassion fatigue. Nursing, 22(4), 116-121.
Sabo, B. (2012). Reflecting on the Concept of Compassion Fatigue. The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Retrieved 7/19/2012 from http://nursingworld.org.

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