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Compassion Fatigue: The Price We Pay as Professional Problem Solvers

Most of us decided to go to law school because we had a passion for justice and helping people. While we may not think of the legal profession as a traditional helping profession like we typically think of social work, the reality is that we serve in a primary helping capacity. Clients are in distress, enough so that they have elected to pay someone (a lawyer) to help them fix the problem or help them achieve the best (or more often, the least bad) outcome.

When we help a client fix a problem or reach a desired outcome, we often feel a strong sense of personal and professional achievement and satisfaction. Researchers call that experience “compassion satisfaction.” Compassion satisfaction is crucially important because it sustains us through the bad days—the days when we don’t achieve the desired outcome or when a client has no viable good options. For many of us, much of our career is spent assisting people in terribly difficult situations, and our ability to effect real change or outcomes is far more limited than we ever imagined it would be.

With the ever increasing specialization of the profession, today most lawyers deal with a very high volume of the same kind of client distress day in and day out. It is not uncommon, for example, for a workers’ comp lawyer to have anywhere from 250-400 open cases at one time. With a high case load and nonstop exposure to the same type of client distress, over the course of a career the bad days can begin to outweigh the good ones. When that happens, we may develop a condition known as compassion fatigue. If left unaddressed, compassion fatigue can lead to secondary trauma and burn out.

Compassion fatigue is defined as the cumulative physical/emotional/psychological effects of continual exposure to traumatic or distressing stories/events when working in a helping capacity where demands outweigh resources. The two largest factors that contribute to developing compassion fatigue are 1) high volume of workload and 2) exposure to client distress and trauma. Unfortunately, all the best legal training in the world cannot turn off our mirror neurons, which exist in that highly-evolved part of our brain that responds neurologically/emotionally to other people’s distress as an involuntary response (even when we might not have any conscious awareness of an emotional response). The symptoms of compassion fatigue can often mimic those of depression or anxiety, but there are a few key differences (and depression and anxiety are often symptoms of compassion fatigue).

Behavioral symptoms:

  • absenteeism from work
  • anger and irritability with coworkers, clients, opposing counsel, judges, family, and friends
  • indecisiveness; an impaired ability to make decisions
  • avoidance of clients in general or certain clients
  • lack of diligence in work performed
  • no longer finding enjoyment in hobbies and activities that used to be pleasurable
  • avoidant behavior at home (e.g. watching too much TV, reading, online gaming, and not interacting with family or friends).

Psychological symptoms:

  • emotional exhaustion
  • intrusive thoughts (like flashbacks to evidence in an old case when one is at home,  or a sense of dread of something bad happening to one’s family or children)
  • heightened sense of anxiety and fear
  • sleep disturbance at night and fatigue during the day
  • loss of appetite
  • cynicism (loss of empathy; loss of faith in humanity)
  • sense of isolation or alienation from others (for example, either intentionally distancing from friends and family or simply feeling isolated in a group—“When I get home, I feel like I am from another planet because of what I saw today at work.”)
  • physical complaints (headaches, stomach problems, TMJ, back problems, etc.)
  • helplessness
  • dread of seeing certain clients.

When one moves beyond compassion fatigue into secondary trauma and burnout, symptoms are more severe. In secondary trauma, the lawyer or judge has developed a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) response to the day-to-day activities needed in his or her job and in life. The PTSD response results not from some personal trauma the lawyer once suffered, but from the vicarious trauma he or she is exposed to when helping clients.

Judges in particular are at risk for developing compassion fatigue, especially district court judges. And lawyers in these practice areas are considered particularly at risk for developing compassion fatigue:

  • criminal law
  • family law
  • personal injury and workers’ comp law
  • medical malpractice law
  • personal bankruptcy
  • wills, trusts, and estates.

In good news, compassion fatigue can often be treated largely through awareness and lifestyle choices. The problem, of course, is that many of us are entrenched in how we operate on a day-to-day basis, and some of these lifestyle suggestions seem unattainable. The LAP has helped so many lawyers bring their lives back into balance who are suffering from compassion fatigue.

Listed below are some suggestions that at first blush might seem minor, but have the greatest impact.

  • Rigorous exercise three to four times a week. Our bodies and brains store a great deal of pent-up energy from the stresses we encounter in work and life. Regular exercise does more than release endorphins, although that is a great benefit. I am a big advocate of hot yoga. As one client reports, “It takes all the fight right out of you.” Another client who was suffering from compassion fatigue reported, “If I hit two hot yoga classes a week I seem to be fine. When I skip a week I start to derail pretty quickly.” Running, long distance cycling, swimming, triathlons, vinyasa (power) yoga or hot yoga, Zumba, or other aerobic classes are all viable options. Anything that moves your heart rate into a 65-85% of max range will work—it needn’t be a high impact activity.
  • Finding ways to laugh and have real fun and connection. Our emotional balance in life depends in part on the stimulus hitting our mirror neurons. When you recall times you felt really connected to someone or a group of people, there was something very positive happening in your brain. That felt sense of connection is an important tool for emotional resilience. Sometimes a belly laugh that brings tears to our eyes is more restorative than two years of talk therapy. So find people who make you laugh and to whom you feel a deep sense of connection and spend time with them.
  • Resume or develop hobbies. Usually as work and time demands increase, the first thing we abandon are hobbies and activities that seemingly serve no useful purpose. These activities are precisely the kinds of things that restore emotional resilience. Doing something you enjoy simply because you enjoy it balances the chemistry in your brain and goes a long way toward balancing our perspective when faced with difficulties. Find those things you abandoned—or those things you’ve always wanted to do but have never gotten around to doing—and begin to incorporate them into your life.
  • Begin to develop some form of a mindfulness or meditation practice. These practices help foster big-picture perspective and separate us, just a little bit, from our emotional reactions to situations. As we get more skilled in learning to step back emotionally and noticing our reactions, those reactions have less power to dictate our behavior. We learn to pause when agitated or doubtful instead of reacting to the agitation or doubt.

Compassion fatigue symptoms are normal displays of stress resulting from the problem solving and caregiving work we perform on a regular basis. While the symptoms can be at first subtle if not addressed, they can eventually become disruptive to both our work and home life. An awareness of the symptoms and their negative effects can lead to positive change, personal transformation, and a new emotional resilience. Reaching a point where we each realize we have control over our own life choices takes some time, dedication, and hard work. There is no magic involved. There is only a commitment to make our lives the best they can be.

– By Robynn Moraites

Robynn Moraites is the director of the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program. 

The North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program is a confidential program of assistance for all North Carolina lawyers, judges, and law students, which helps address problems of stress, depression, alcoholism, addiction, or other problems that may lead to impairing a lawyer’s ability to practice. If you would like more information, go to nclap.org or call: Cathy Killian (for Charlotte and areas west) at 704-910-2310, Towanda Garner (in the Piedmont area) at 919-719-9290, or Robynn Moraites (for Raleigh and down east) at 704-892-5699.

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