If you’ve been waiting for a sign to take a vacation, here it is!
For those working in “helper” professions like mental health, substance abuse, and general healthcare, it’s easy to feel the emotional toll of giving all of our time and energy to helping other people. This compounds when we have obligations with friends, family, and around the home; when is it time to help the helpers?
These feelings can often lead to burnout or its younger sister, compassion fatigue. One of the best ways to fight burnout and compassion fatigue is via time off of work. Let’s talk a little about the impacts of burnout and compassion fatigue to show the importance of your vacation time.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state experienced by prolonged emotional stress on the job. Research from the 2001 Annual Review of Psychology identify the key symptoms of burnout as “exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy”. In other words:
- Burnout makes us tired
- Burnout makes us less happy at our job, and
- Burnout makes us less efficient at our job.
You can see how these three factors feed into one another. The harder we have to try for job efficiency, the more exhausted we get and the less satisfied we become with our job performance.
Exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy at work can manifest in a few different ways:
- Pulling back from work (including emotional distance from colleagues or missing days)
- A feeling that what you do doesn’t make a difference
- Poor sleep
- Physical unrest, like head or back pain
These symptoms can also impact our quality of life outside of work.
What is compassion fatigue?
Since burnout relates to emotional stress, it’s not hard to imagine how burnout compounds in a job that depends on emotional responses like empathy–including counseling. That’s why burnout has a younger sister in compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue has also been described as secondary traumatic stress. When we deal with patients who have been through traumatic events, we are forced to feel their pain with them and talk to them in-depth about the event. Empathizing with clients sometimes means that we experience sadness along with them.
An article in the Journal of Health Organization and Management summarizes research stating that anywhere from 16 to 85 percent of healthcare workers experience compassion fatigue. The same article also discusses the term’s roots in American politics, as Americans in the 1990s became emotionally exhausted and exasperated with foreign matters, preferring to focus on domestic policy. Even now, the 24-hour news cycle may be making us more susceptible to political compassion fatigue.
While the symptoms are largely similar to burnout (pulling back from other people, poor sleep, and workplace cynicism), compassion fatigue can extend to feelings of depression, and makes it difficult to leave these problems at home.
The positive effects of vacations
Burnout is a response to levels of stress on the job, and we need de-stressors to counter it. Vacations and other paid time off have proven to reduce levels of stress and improve a sense of well-being. They essentially allow our brains the chance to recover and reset.
The average worker in the United States has 10 days of paid vacation time per year. However, since the US is one of the only developed countries not to mandate vacation time, about 23% of our workers do not receive any vacation time. This is in stark contrast to Europe; most EU countries mandate 20-30 vvacation days per year.
That extra vacation time can really decrease levels of stress. One study of working Americans found a 29% decrease in the odds of depression in women for every ten extra days off.
As for how much vacation time you need, a recovery period only lasts so long. A German study of middle managers found that a vacation of four nights could have a recovery effect lasting 30-45 days, whether the participants took a trip or a “staycation”.
While a little time off can be an amazing shield with which to fight burnout, sometimes more is required to fight against compassion fatigue. Here are some questions to ask yourself to keep your work from impacting your mental health.
Are you in the right career? Do you feel you’re supported by your boss and colleagues at work? Do you feel you have the right tools to perform your job?
When you are having a frustrating day, do you have someone to talk to? Do you have quality friends? Are you interacting with them as much as you’d like to?
Do you have a set of core values that dictate how you see the world and humans living in it? (This can be especially important when dealing with trauma; you will be inundated with stories about the worst of humanity, and it can affect how you see the world.)
Are you taking enough time off of work? What do you do when you get home? Do you have healthy coping mechanisms (like reading or exercise)? Or are you relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms (like avoidance and alcohol)? Are you achieving personal goals that aren’t tied to your job?
To avoid burnout and compassion fatigue, make sure you’re working in an environment that values you as a human being enough to offer you paid vacation time–and use it.