Finding Relief From Living in Compassion Fatigue

Question:  I am an executive director of a mid-sized nonprofit organization. For the last couple of months, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. I dread going into the office in the morning. The other day, I found myself sitting in my car that was parked in my office parking lot trying to rustle up enough energy to go into the building.  I’m not sleeping well because my mind is racing with everything that I need to do.  I feel sad all the time now and struggle with bouts of crying and even small panic attacks.

Answer:  It appears that you are describing symptoms of leadership burn-out. Unfortunately, I see this most often in leaders who are hard-wired to be result oriented, high-performers who do not have the right people in the right places doing the right things, chronic board problems or an organizational underground fire.

In my 22 years of executive coaching, I’ve observed that there are three stages of leadership stress that may ultimately result in stress related illnesses and, sadly, even resignation if something does not change.

STAGES

I have found that unresolved long-term feelings of being overloaded at work is a recipe for compassion fatigue and it’s generally just a matter of time before unresolved compassion fatigue turns into burnout.  Therefore, anyone who is striving to be healthy (physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, etc.) should be on guard for the slipper slop into burnout.

According to my experience, this is how the stages generally flow.

Self care plan

FIRST STAGE: Overload 

Description: This stage generally is the “frog in the hot water” scenario. It can catch almost everyone off guard if they do not understand the indicators of organizational overload and make the right adjustments.

Below are common events or situations that may cause you to feel overloaded at work. Feeling overloaded does not have a strong negative impact on your life unless you continue to experience three or more of the situations listed below.

How You May Feel

  • You still love the work you’re doing but feeling the need to take a short break or a few mental health days.
  • You’re tired a lot
  • It’s a little more difficult to get up in the morning
  • You’re feeling overwhelmed by the afternoon.
  • You find yourself needing (more than usual amount) caffeine in the afternoon.
  • You’re struggling with getting and remaining organized. Paper work is piling up.
  • Sometimes you don’t know where to begin.
  • Everything is slowly moving into the “urgent” category.
  • You’re feeling like you are taking one step forward and two steps backward.

Possible Causes of Overload

Below are common situations that may cause you to feel overloaded at work. Short term feeling overloaded does not always have a strong negative impact on your life unless you continue to experience three or more of the situations listed below for more than three monthgs

  • A large or long-term project that require many extra hours, focus and energy in addition to your current work.
  • Launching a new major program.
  • Opening a new facility.
  • Manageable internal organizational crisis.
  • Inadequate infrastructure.
  • Not having the right people in the right places doing the right things.
  • Organization is moving into another level on the corporate life cycle.
  • Lack of relevance and/or clarity in job descriptions and supervisor expectations.
  • Operational systems have not been updated and are not working like they used to.
  • Staff is complaining about not know what is going on within the organization.
  • Board decisions are taking too long.
  • Executive director feels like the board is starting to micromanage them.
  • Team meetings focus more on urgent problem solving than moving the organization forward.
  • It’s taking longer and longer to get things done.
  • Staff is beginning is complain more often.
  • Important leadership time is being consumed with executive administration details.
  • Big picture strategic plans on hold.
  • When you leave the office to go home you feel like you took three steps forward and two steps backward. Nothing is getting done as efficiently as it could.
  • A large or long-term project that require many extra hours, focus and energy in addition to your current work.
  • Launching a new major program.
  • The vision has out-grown the infrastructure.
  • The organization is moving through the “doing things right” stage on the corporate life cycle.
  • Job descriptions need updating.
  • The organization needs a governing board rather than a managing board.

Possible Solutions:  If you are an executive of a nonprofit organization and you relate to three or more of any of the above bullets, do not wait for things to get worse before doing something.

SECOND STAGE: Compassion Fatigue 

  • Possible Causes
    • A long-term project (over 6 months).
    • Back to back long-term projects without recover time in between.
    • An increase in job demands without the right tools to get things done in a timely manner or with excellence.
    • Lack of clarity in job descriptions and supervisor expectations becomes more of a problem.
    • Staff appears unhappy overall.
    • Staff is having interpersonal conflicts.
    • Dealing with the same stress factors over and over without a solution.How you may feel
  • How you may feel
    • Never enough time to get things done.
    • Isolated from others – no one understands the pressure you are under.
    • Impatient with yourself and others. Cranky
    • You are becoming less enthusiastic about going into the center while still caring about the staff, clients and mission of the organization.
    • You are feeling very tired, even fatigued, by mid-afternoon.
    • You are not enjoying your work like you used to.
    • Find yourself questioning if you are the right person for the leadership or management position.
    • Problems with the mind racing at night – cannot turn it off to sleep.

THIRD STAGE: Burnout

  • Causes
    • Chronic stress over one issue that goes on and on with no solution.
    • Extreme disloyalty within organization
    • Board conflicts
    • Working in outside areas of strength for an extended amount of time
    • Not having and/or implementing a self-care plan
  • Symptoms
    • Having difficulty sleeping
    • Sleeping less than five hours
    • Sleeping a lot
    • Crying or easily tearing-up
    • Panic attacks
    • Physical manifestations that are connected with stress
    • Headaches
    • Sore muscles
    • Cortisol levels too high or too low
    • Serious difficulty focusing
    • Loss of initiative, creativity, imagination
    • Strong feelings of either fight or flight
    • Want to get in the car and drive away
    • Friends/spouse/relatives (people who know you and care about you) expresses concern
    • A few days off does not help

MY BEST ADVICE

Get some coaching that can help you identify the real issues and provide gentle accountability.

Create a self-care plan and stick to it.

 

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