A beautiful aspect of my job is the opportunity to help others. I have opportunities to mentor, train and advise students, to assist colleagues and co-workers, to collaborate on a variety of projects, and to reach out beyond the scientific community. This adds diversity to my day and enriches my scientific experience. Some of these activities are literally part of my job, some provide direct or indirect benefits to me, and some are services I’ve chosen to provide because I want to be helpful. Usually this feels very rewarding, but frankly sometimes it feels exhausting. On a bad day, it feels like everyone wants to take a little piece of me and very few people are giving back. Intellectually, I know that’s not true, but I still sometimes struggle to find a balance.
A moment stands out as the straw that broke the camel’s back – and inspired me to find some answers. It was a busy time of year and I was already feeling very drained. I met with a student to listen to his/her (“his” hereafter) perspectives on our educational programs and to provide some guidance. The student provided a thoughtful discussion of perceived problems with our programs. I listened and tried to think of ways I might address his concerns. The discussion moved toward his future plans and work/life balance. The student placed a high priority on many interests and life goals outside of research, and was somewhat critical of an all-encompassing focus on research. Similar views would be expressed by scientists at many career levels. But in this case, the discussion left me feeling judged. As if the student had looked at my own life and choices and found them lacking. While I tried to help the student, I felt my own enthusiasm draining. Why didn’t I have concrete solutions to address all his concerns? Was my own career out of balance with my life? Had I made the “wrong” choices? I don’t usually think so, but many of my normal activities were starting to feel less rewarding and perhaps insufficiently valued.
Thinking more broadly, I’ve noticed that I find it especially stressful to provide advice to students about their careers and especially career-life choices. What if I didn’t have the right answer? What if I couldn’t solve the problem? I tend to share their stress and compound it by feeling limited in my ability to help. I tentatively asked several of my colleagues if they had similar feelings, but I haven’t been able to find anyone who shares similar experiences. This still surprises me, and suggested to me that others might also be feeling alone with this experience. I decided to look further outside the box. What kinds of people might feel drained in this way? I thought that people who spend BIG parts of their day directly helping others might feel this even more deeply. I thought of grade-school teachers, social workers, therapists, and disaster relief workers. These jobs may be much more emotionally demanding than my own, but some flavor of the demands and stresses seemed similar. Asking around I got some pointers from a friend who is a chaplain and another who is a school counselor. To them, what I was describing sounded a lot like compassion fatigue.
I’m not an expert on this subject, but I’ve benefited a great deal from knowing that compassion fatigue is “a real thing” – an experience shared by others and a syndrome that can be treated. In the Compassion Fatigue Workbook, it is defined as “the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate.” Among many common symptoms, two that I experienced were irritability with colleagues and fatigue and exhaustion at the end of the day. In addition to this book, I have found several informative websites, a few of which I’ve listed below. The suggestions include increasing your awareness of the problem, taking time for self-care, establishing boundaries, proactively organizing your efforts, and developing a social support system. I still sometimes feel drained at the end of a long day, a long week or a long month, but I now better understand the specific triggers for these feelings and am able to take active steps to “refill the well.” Restoring my own energy allows me to perform better as a scientist and help others along the way.
The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project