Most supervisors assume that when a team member stops producing, they have become disengaged from their work. However, this assumption is rarely true. In my planning sessions, retreats, and workshops, I have discovered that the majority of these “disengaged” employees actually love their work. They stand behind the company’s mission, and they believe wholeheartedly in what they do. If anything is the problem, it is that these passionate team members love their work too much. Because they are so passionate about what they do and the people they serve, they end up overworking themselves. They give it their all for extremely long periods of time, foregoing rest and recovery for the sake of the business and its clients. And as a result, they wind up suffering from Professional Compassion Fatigue. This syndrome appears quite frequently among case managers, social workers, and nurses, all of whom are working closely with individuals in crisis. But though “crises” may not be life or death in a corporate or small business environment, the same type of burnout can still take hold over time. Feeling like their contributions are essential to the success of the company or the client, employees may put in extra hours, strive to turn projects around in unrealistically short time frames, or allow work to take over their personal lives. But because humans are not designed to sustain intense production without rest, these team members eventually grow detached or agitated. Their productivity begins to suffer.
How close is your team to burnout?
Here are the five stages of Professional Compassion Fatigue.
Before Professional Compassion Fatigue can set in, individuals must first be exposed to situations that trigger their compassion. They may hear about, witness, or work with people and causes that are close to the heart. They see the need that their work addresses, and they believe their efforts make a real difference in the world. As a result, they grow emotionally invested in their work.
Because they are emotionally invested in the outcome of their efforts, work is no longer left at work. In this stage, individuals often think about their work long into the night, disrupting their sleep patterns. Distracted by the constant feeling of needing or wanting to do more, they may become short with coworkers or family members. Despite working long hours, they may believe they are not doing enough. Because they see how much more needs to be done to achieve the company’s mission, team members may question whether their work has true impact or significance. They keep pushing, though, for they also fear what may happen if they do not complete their work and end up letting down the team, their clients, and the company. Deep down, they find themselves wondering whether it is even possible to make a difference.
As their internal overwhelm grows, individuals begin to suffer physically and mentally. Due to a lack of sleep and energy drain from the intensity of their work, emotional connection starts to wane. The team member may seem withdrawn or emotionless. You may notice them staring off into space, or their tone of voice may sound detached. Due to their intense investment in their work, they are experiencing an inherent physiological response: the body and mind are literally trying to force them to relax and recover. As this biological process kicks in, the brain restricts or shuts down production of the chemicals that allow passionate emotional connection. On the surface, it looks like the team member has intentionally checked out, but underneath, the body is simply trying to disconnect from the drain of ongoing anxiety and stress.
After a period of time, this biologically-derived relaxation may seem to work. Once the body has recovered slightly, the team member may appear to snap out of it. However, when they re-engage, supervisors and coworkers might notice an increased level of agitation. Knowing they’ve been out of it, the employee sees a million things that all require their immediate attention. They finally have a little more energy, but thanks to overwhelm, they may struggle to figure out where to start, and due to the high work volume they feel they face, their patience also begins to wear thin. As they pour themselves back into work, trying to conquer the mountain of to-dos, anxiety creeps back in, once again causing them to lose sleep. Fortunately, this stage is normally fairly short; the body cannot withstand much more stress. If corrective action has not been taken prior to this stage, most supervisors will notice the growing issues with engagement and agitation and will intervene to create a performance improvement plan. Unfortunately, such intervention is not normally seen as helpful and often spurs resentment on the part of the employee.
If compassion fatigue continues, the team member will enter the final stage of full-blown burnout. This stage involves complete physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. The body is worn down from lack of self-care, insufficient rest, and intense stress, and energy stores are completely depleted. At this point, even a week or two out of the office is too little too late. They cannot easily overcome so many months or even years of depletion and self-abuse. If your team is facing burnout due to Professional Compassion Fatigue, it’s time to acknowledge this very real challenge that accompanies world-impacting work. As the growing number of B-Corporations indicates, more and more companies are taking on the lofty goal of improving our world, and these are the exact type of companies likely to face high levels of employee burnout. These passionate team members are ready to support the companies they believe in, and they need their leaders to support them in kind.
Is your team burned out? What can you do to support your team?
Book a call with me to talk strategy and solutions that will cure your team and get them back to healthy, productive and passionate players.