Do Helping Organizations Experience Compassion Fatigue?

As the events of 2020 have turned our attention to helping professionals, compassion fatigue awareness is on the rise.  In my book, The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to Helping Professionals, I examine the mindsets and response patterns that can lead to compassion fatigue in the individual. But compassion fatigue is not just a problem of the individual.

Organizations that serve traumatized people develop their own trauma histories, mindsets, and response patterns. In turn, this shapes organizational culture and the day-to-day experiences of the workforce. To change this trajectory, it is important to examine the impact of chronic exposure to trauma on organizations that serve those who have been traumatized.

Since organizations are made up of human beings, they develop in much the same way. What we know about brain development and how it is impacted by traumatic experiences can help us to understand how an organization can develop compassion fatigue.

Developmental drivers

The brain has two developmental drivers, the blueprint mapped by our DNA and our experiences throughout our life. Likewise, helping organizations usually begin with a purpose and a plan, but they are profoundly influenced by their experiences.

By design, these organizations are repeatedly exposed to the trauma of those they serve. As this exposure takes its toll on the individuals that make up the organizations, burned out staff, and constant turnover become ongoing challenges that add to the toxic stress of the environment.

In addition to the experience of secondary trauma and stress, helping institutions are vulnerable to and often experience primary traumatic events. This can include loss of programs, layoffs, and even the death or severe injury to an employee or client.

Developmental Goals

The brain is designed with goals to both thrive and survive. Likewise, most social service agencies or helping institutions have a stated goal or mission to serve the community in a manner that has positive impact. Programs and strategies are designed to realize their mission statement. However, to accomplish this goal, they must also achieve sustainability. That is, they must survive to serve another day. This unwritten goal of survival can become as much or more of a driver than the mission. This is especially true for organizations that live in a climate of constant external threat. Funding cuts, restrictive regulations, and external pressures to conform to flawed processes are all everyday challenges to organizations. Even other agencies that share the same mission can be viewed as predators in a world where there is competition for funding. 

Interpretive Function

Like the human brain, organizations interpret data to help them achieve their goals.  Much like individuals, organizations develop mindsets that are shaped by an experience with an unsafe world.  Often these unspoken beliefs can contradict the professed organizational values.

These mindsets, in turn, can drive the agency’s response patterns. This can cause the agency to be profoundly more reactive then proactive.

The beliefs and practices of the people in the organization is what forms its culture. That is, the values and beliefs that are consistently demonstrated throughout the organization (These may differ from the values hanging on the wall.)

Function of Relationships

Relationships are as vital to the health and healing of an organization as they are to an individual.  Organizational trauma histories also impact organizational relationships, both internally and externally. Relationship patterns can be a source of re-traumatization or they can be a source of healing. It is in these interpersonal interactions that we can see the symptoms of compassion fatigue take form.

In the same way the brain’s design impacts the individual, the above elements factor into the development of present-day organizational culture. Most helping organizations have a past that includes both primary trauma and secondary trauma. We must acknowledge that many also have histories of inflicting trauma and perpetuating institutional racism. These experiences, too, become embedded in the current culture. Failure to acknowledge any or all of these wounds leave workers to carry the burden of trauma they cannot even name.

Symptoms of a Compassion Fatigued Organization

Just as with individuals, recognition of the symptoms of organizational compassion fatigue is a core step in creating a compassionate culture. Below is a list of symptoms that are far from exclusive but can begin the process of organizational awareness.

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Scarcity thinking: Is the organization generous with its resources and does it prioritize making sure programs and staff have the resources they need to be successful? Or is there a constant pressure to find ways to cut expenses and make do with less?
  • Finger pointing: Do leaders and staff step up to take responsibility for their part when things go wrong? Or is there a scramble to assign blame elsewhere?
  • Failure to learn from mistakes: Does the organization embrace both successes and failures as learning opportunities? Or do they keep repeating the same mistakes?
  • Fixed potential: Does the organization develop and inspire employees at all levels? Or does leadership see some as having fixed roles and capabilities?
  • Denial: Do leaders have an accurate perception of the challenges their organization might face? Or are they unaware of the struggles of their employees and the needs of the community?
  • Polarization: Do all members have a sense of ownership? Or is there a strong us against them mentality between management and frontline, different departments, and even staff and clients?

Emotional symptoms:

  • Conflict: Are conflicts viewed as learning opportunities and addressed in a timely manner? Or do they go unresolved, allowing anger to fester?
  • Fear: Do employees feel safe in the knowledge that they will be treated fairly? Or is fear the primary motivator?
  • Emotional stifling: Are there healthy avenues for emotional expression? Or do negative emotions surface in the form of low morale, absenteeism, and high turnover?
  • Numbing: Is leadership attuned to the emotional pulse of employees? Or is there a failure to validate this human response?
  • Reactionary responses: Does the organization make value-based decisions guided by future expectations? Or do they react to situations based on past negative perceptions and emotions?

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Punitive practices: Does the organization encourage accountability through clear expectations, learning opportunities and choice? Or does it try to control behavior through punitive methods?
  • Lack of transparency: Is information flow bidirectional, clear, and open? Or is needed information kept hidden?
  • Lack of innovation: Does the organization support questioning and experimentation? Or are employees expected to blindly follow rigid procedures?
  • Limited lines of communication: Is the leadership open to learning from all members of the organization? Or do they only value and rely on the opinions of an elite few?
  • Disconnect: Do practices accurately reflect agency values? Or do the actions of leaders and practitioners routinely contradict professed values?
  • Lack of purpose: Is there a clear connection between the work being done and the mission of the organization? Or do people wonder the purpose of what they are told to do?

Just as we ask the trauma informed question “what happened to them,” when referring to individuals we serve, we must ask the same question when assessing the organization. The irony of all this is that organizations designed to facilitate a compassionate response to social problems, begin to feel like places that hold no space for compassion to thrive. But this is not an accurate reflection of an organization’s heart. It is merely a symptom of the same compassion fatigue experienced by the people it employs. The solution, therefore, lies in cultivating a culture of compassion.

To learn more about compassion fatigue and how to build resiliency in individuals and organizations, check out my book The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to Helping Professionals.

Compassion Fatigue Book The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to Helping Professionals and combatting compassion fatigue

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