Compassion fatigue may affect care providers, faculty member says

Adult caregivers must establish protective boundaries to avoid suffering from compassion fatigue, according to an assistant professor of social work and gerontology at Shippensburg University.

Dr. Dara Bourassa said compassion fatigue results when people work with others and listen to their traumas, causing them to experience post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms ranging from feeling scared to reoccurring nightmares. A caregiver who suffers from compassion fatigue may also experience mental, emotional and physical exhaustion from being in emotionally demanding situations, she said.

Bourassa will teach others how to avoid compassion fatigue during her presentation “Helping professionals and their susceptibility to compassion fatigue” at the Franklin County Human Services Day in Chambersburg Oct. 21.

Bourassa’s interest was piqued on the subject when she was searching for a dissertation topic as part of her doctoral degree. After some initial research, she realized not only that there was a gap in the literature when it came to adult workers, but she had suffered compassion fatigue during her two years working as a hospital social worker.

She found a multitude of research about child protective service workers experiencing compassion fatigue, yet very little about adult protective service workers who protect the elderly from abuse. Bourassa hypothesized that if child protective service workers experience compassion fatigue then adult protective service workers must, too.

A qualitative study in which she interviewed nine adult protective service workers had surprising results. She learned her hypothesis was wrong as none of the nine had experienced compassion fatigue. However, “it turned the study in such a neat direction,” said Bourassa.

Bourassa learned that adult service workers developed boundaries to protect themselves, such as separating their work and home lives. “These service workers somehow developed boundaries to protect themselves from what they had heard. They listened, but they would go home or talk to a co-worker or do other things that essentially served as a protective mechanism.”

Bourassa teaches protective service workers how to protect themselves in her presentation, as well as provides more information on compassion fatigue, its symptoms and effects, a self-evaluation, and advice for protective service workers.

“Try and protect yourself. We want to help others, but we have to help ourselves, as well. An impaired worker does not help their clients. If you’re finding you are not practicing ethically you are doing a disservice to your clients. You’re not going to help anyone if you’re suffering,” said Bourassa.

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