Social workers suffering ‘compassion fatigue’

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Social workers are at risk of developing “compassion fatigue”, which could affect both their mental health and their ability to perform their role effectively, a study has found.

Researchers from the School of Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire surveyed 306 social workers to assess how the job, which often involves assisting in distressing circumstances, affected their mental health.

A questionnaire was used to score workers on how the job affected them in terms of emotional demands, compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue and self-compassion.

They discovered that the nature of the role can “deplete” workers’ compassion and emotional resources over time, which could in turn lead to burnout.

Study author Dr Gail Kinman said: “The need to show compassion has benefits and drawbacks for social care professionals. Compassionate care is beneficial for service users and can enhance job satisfaction for staff, but jobs that are very emotionally demanding can have negative implications for mental health. It is crucial that staff are as compassionate towards themselves as they are to others, as this can protect their wellbeing.

“Compassion fatigue can have a negative effect on job performance as it is strongly linked to poor mental health, difficulties forming relationships with service users, errors and mistakes, poor quality decision making, absence from work and poor staff retention.

“There should be an emphasis on organisational change to ensure optimum staffing levels and more emphasis on self-care in initial and continuing education for health and social care practitioners.”

Dr Kinman said it was important that social workers developed a “tool box” of self-care strategies to avoid compassion fatigue, and that the importance of caring for oneself should be emphasised from the early stages of social care training.

The paper, which has been published in the Occupational Medicine journal, says: “Many health and social care practitioners complete their training with little knowledge of how to maintain their mental health and avoid burnout. The need for an ‘emotional curriculum’ that prepares and supports staff for the emotional demands of practice from recruitment to retirement is widely recognised.

“Strategies are required to reduce the risk of compassion fatigue and increase opportunities for helping professionals to gain compassion satisfaction. Initiatives to encourage the qualities that underpin self-compassion seem particularly important as it appears to benefit mental health directly and provides some protection from the negative effects of emotional demands.”

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