Work in helping professions can lead to burnout, loss of compassion
By Tamiko Morgan, M.D.
Compassion is defined as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” (Merriam Dictionary). Related words include those such as kindness, empathy, mercy, understanding, and humanity. The opposite of compassion would be described as insensitivity, cold-heartedness, indifference, cruelty, and inhumanity.
Please note, weakness is not the same as compassion: It takes a strong person to be able to care as much about others as themselves! In fact, one could argue that the foundation of being human is built on this sense of consideration of others.
When compassion is lost, humanity suffers. We see evidence of this in all walks of life (just tune in to the news), even on a personal, everyday level. Similar to your personal life, in the workplace, loss of compassion causes suffering to those around you and those you serve. You may also lose a sense of self, which could be the greatest tragedy of all!
For most, working in health care presented an opportunity to help and serve others. In fact, that was my main motivation to pursue a career in medicine: “to help others.” However, like many “helping professions” (i.e. clergy, nurses, social workers, teachers, police officers, etc.) the cost of this could be high.
Many people, who constantly give and serve others, over time, may experience a loss of compassion. Feelings of burnout and apathy kick in, and the very thing that was the motivation to pursue your helping career becomes the very thing that is lost. Sadly, most do not even realize that they have begun to lose it since the transition can be very subtle, and almost “acceptable etiquette,” especially if you are working around others who are experiencing the same.
So how would you recognize your loss of compassion? This may differ depending on the individual, but here are some interesting observations:
1.Depersonalization of people as individuals (referred to as “them,” “those,” or other grouping or labeling, i.e. “the addicts, the drug-seekers, the criminals”)
2. Generalization and stereotyping of people or groups (everyone is seen as the same, forming opinions based on a few individuals, or that they all have same behaviors or characteristics)
3. Feelings of defensiveness and blaming the victim (i.e. “it’s their fault that they’re in this situation,” “I’m not going to let them get away with this” vs. “help me to understand why this happened,” and “I’m not able to do that, but is there something else I can help you with”)
4. A general lack of concern about the outcome (how what you do and what others do affect an individual)
These are just a few examples; however, it is important to practice regular self-awareness to keep yourself mindful of personal biases, judgments, and prejudices that may sneak into your thinking. What you think could eventually manifest in your actions, and this places one in a perilous position when making decisions about the care of others. Keep in mind that most of us are only one unfortunate life event or tragedy away from being the one needing to be served.
Just something to consider…
Dr. Tamiko Morgan is the chief medical officer/medical director at Metropolitan Health Plan (MHP). She is board certified in pediatrics, with additional training in healthcare administration, integrative medicine, and health coaching. She is an active advocate in the community in eliminating healthcare disparities and serves as the vice president of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians. She is author of the book VIP Very Important Patient: The African American Woman’s Guide to Health Care, Healing, & Wellness.