“Compassion fatigue” describes how providers of services to people going through disasters feel when they become weary of assisting the persons affected by traumas of any type.  Although this year is not a disaster for many agricultural producers, it is shaping up to be more challenging than for several years for some farmers, and for the people who provide support services to distressed farmers and disaster victims.

Drought, too much rain, hurricanes, volatile commodity prices, and uncertain financial outcomes this growing year are major concerns.  I’ve been hearing from agency officials who serve farmers and storm victims in one way or another that their staff members are getting tired, but they don’t want to relinquish their important service roles.

Some of the worries shared with me are from USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) personnel, agricultural mediation specialists, and lenders, who report that farmers are contacting them for assistance more frequently than usual.  The providers want to know how to deal with their own stress.

FSA office staff have to have superb capacity to understand the worries of the people they interact with on the other side of the office counter.  I enjoy and appreciate the persons that I interact with in my county FSA.  We share humor, informative discussions, and they look out for me (somebody has to!).

These competent FSA employees are gracious, helpful, careful to protect confidentiality, careful also to not draw unwarranted conclusions, and they are emotionally intuitive about the concerns of the farmers they deal with.  They are “good psychologists,” which is why many farmers vent their concerns to them.

Emotional intelligence is required to work with uptight agricultural producers who want to know about requirements and options for their farming operations.  Whether at FSA premises, veterinary medicine offices, and other agricultural businesses, the people who work with farmers mostly care much about their clients and they want them to succeed.

Perhaps that helps explain why a growing number of veterinarians, mediators, farm lenders, and farmers seek advanced training, such as several graduate courses, and sometimes masters and doctoral degrees in behavioral health professions.  I learned this from personal experience mentoring emerging professionals and from participating last fall in the International One Welfare Conference at Winnipeg, Canada, attended largely by veterinarians, behavioral health professionals, administrators of farming-related agencies, scientists, professors and students in these fields, and agricultural producers.

All dedicated professionals wear out emotionally, including physicians, nurses, counselors, crisis responders and anyone who helps people struggling with stress.  They, and the persons they work with, need to understand compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is not an indicator of dislike for one’s job or for the persons being served.  It’s a sign that respite and recovery are needed by the service providers.

Guilt sometimes accompanies caregivers’ loss of enthusiasm for their work, but it shouldn’t.  Caregivers want to continue serving but their personal “compassion fuel tanks” are empty.

Family members can experience similar compassion fatigue, such as when caring for loved ones with debilitating illnesses like Alzheimer’s Disease, or when dealing with any overwhelming complaints that wear them out.

All caregivers should adhere to the guiding principles: 1st, do no harm; and 2nd, heal thyself–that is – take care of oneself to better serve others.

Signs of compassion fatigue usually include the following:

• Feeling irritable and annoyed by more requests for help and sometimes even by little things

• Trouble sleeping and enjoying things that have been fun in the past

• Wanting to avoid coworkers and clients even though that is not a typical feeling

• Occasional atypical outbursts of anger, trouble concentrating, and diminished planning capacity

• Feeling more tired than usual, without a clear explanation except for previous hard work

Although these are not the only signs of being emotionally drained, and sometimes physically drained as well, they are key indicators of compassion fatigue.  What can caregivers do to restore themselves?

Useful tips and resources to help caregivers include these:

• Respite, recreation, times away when not thinking (on purpose) about feelings of obligation, sleeping soundly, talking with others about subjects unrelated to service concerns, laughing, and just plain “goofing off” are therapeutic

• Drinking alcohol or using medications may help temporarily, but their benefits quickly play out, rendering them ineffective until conscious efforts to change behaviors like those noted above are implemented; then, longer-term adjustment can be achieved

• The SAMHSA DTAC (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Disaster Technical Assistance Center http://www.samhsa.gov/dtac) has literature and tips for dealing with emotional overload and grief

• Other sources for understanding and dealing with compassion fatigue include: www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167, and www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/symptoms.html

• Compassion fatigue dissipates gradually and we can return to work, but keep an eye on wearing out again

It’s a sign of healthy management of caregiving when we take time to recuperate, and not a weakness.  The people we work with can learn this from us as caregivers.