How further study helps community workers cope with compassion fatigue

Mid-career study can release the pressure valve.

Compassion fatigue and burnout are not uncommon in community and social services. Supporting others can be test one’s mental health at the best of times, but with the added strains of tight resources, regulations, bureaucracy, government policy and social justice issues, fatigue and burnout are rife among mental health professionals, social and case workers and counsellors.

But undertaking further study mid-career can help release the pressure valve.

The University of Melbourne’s community services program dedicates time to giving students tools to manage their own mental health so they can provide the best professional care.

Fatigue and burnout are not to be confused, though they can occur simultaneously. Compassion fatigue comes when a carer absorbs the stresses and traumas of others, triggering a stress response in the carer. It often manifests in the forms of chronic exhaustion, grief, avoidance of some patients, reduced empathy and sympathy, and depersonalisation.

Burnout on the other hand can inflict any worker in any industry, and usually leads to symptoms like anger, frustration and withdrawal.

In an industry where resilience and altruism are paramount, community service workers must first be able to look after themselves before they can make positive changes in the lives of others.

“Central to our social work and health and human service courses is the concept of reflection and self care,” says Dr Ralph Hampson, Associate Professor of social work at the University of Melbourne. “This is explored at the levels of policy, program design and individual responses. In our clinical subjects we equip our students to understand and react to stress, which is a normal part of the work in the field.”

Further study can help workers identify the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, and then give them the tools to cope. Setting emotional boundaries and practising self-care aren’t always easy, and like any skill, they need to be properly taught and practised.

Maintaining connections with fellow students – many of whom will be working in the industry alongside study – is another way to help stay engaged with work and purpose.

“Students do have opportunities to interact with each other, and we certainly encourage that,” says Paul Badcock, senior lecturer at the Centre for Youth Mental Health. “We mandate interactive online discussion forums so people can talk about course content, and we also require them to reply to other students. What we tend to find is that students go over and above with that.”

A strong network of peers can be cultivated through any University of Melbourne course – online or on campus. The Master of Advanced Social Work is a fully online and flexible degree, which is taught part-time to fit around professional work.

“Many of our students had been quite anxious [about the course] being online, but the feedback we've had is that they really enjoy it,” says Dr Hampson. “Online teaching has really changed, because we now have much more stable platforms and internet connections. When I did this 10 years ago, everybody crashed out when you were trying to have a discussion. The University of Melbourne has invested in producing really high-end technology.”

Ultimately, simply changing routine can also help workers reset, refresh and recapture motivation. Engaging and expanding your knowledge may alone be the first step in managing or preventing compassion fatigue.

Explore our community services courses