Live United: Compassion fatigue takes a toll

Published 8:45 pm Friday, October 22, 2021

Live United by Erin Haag

I met with a colleague the other day. We walked into the conference room and looked at each other. The standard, “How are you”. We both paused and made faces at each other. We know each other well enough to not say the platitude of “good and you?” “I’m good, doing good”. Instead, she sighed and said, “it’s the compassion fatigue”. I nodded my head knowingly, and then we moved on and got to work to address our meeting topic.

Erin Haag

Compassion fatigue is the physical, emotional and psychological impact of helping others. It’s often confused for burnout. There’s a difference though — burnout is the effect of a stressful workplace. Compassion fatigue is the effect of helping others — helping those who have significant barriers, and feeling a little bit like you’re bailing out the Titanic with just a small bowl. It makes sense to me. The United Way of Freeborn County is a happy office, with birthday cake and people dropping off beautiful handmade quilts. Puppies come to visit and we have music and food and exercise balls. We take breaks and walk.

Burnout is about being worn out — and that can be related to compassion fatigue. If compassion fatigue goes unchecked, then the burnout sets in. It’s essential that we lift up those that are working to help others, to make sure that compassion fatigue doesn’t lead to burnout.

The other day, I heard about an organization, not a local one, that issued cost of living raises. The person sharing the information was disgruntled, and said, “don’t they know they’re a charity? I’m not donating to someone’s salary”.

Every single time I hear this, it breaks my heart. If we were to have a world where non-profits could be entirely volunteer run, and accept no salary, that would be fantastic. But we don’t. We have people out there that are highly trained, highly efficient and highly motivated to help others. Don’t they deserve a living wage too?

We’re hearing all over the media about restaurants closing because of short staff, stores out of products because of the supply chain. Every sector has been affected, and non-profits are not alone.

Why does the non profit pay below a competitive rate? I do agree, no one should be getting rich from a non-profit salary. But shouldn’t we be paying the competitive work for the same level of work and experience? At the very least, we should be seeing increases in wage to slowly get there.

I know one executive director who pours much of his salary right back into his organization. He’s not alone. We’re sort of like teachers, shopping at Target and paying for supplies out of pocket. If a person is in a position to do so, that’s fantastic. How many people are we losing — or how many people are we not able to hire because they can’t afford to work for us?

Compassion fatigue is tricky because it’s inherent in human services. However, at the operational level, a way to combat compassion fatigue is to ensure you’re paying a liveable wage (or at least have a plan to get there). Give benefits such as paid time off, a family friendly policy or other benefits that encourage that work life balance.

If you’re on a board, I hope that you consider the effect of compassion fatigue of your organization. Look at the compensation of the executive director. Is it competitive for what they do for the organization? Do they have a payroll budget to adequately staff their organization? Perhaps they’ll tell you it’s not needed — but it is. If they choose to drive their salary back into the organization, that’s their choice then and it’s documented.

Too often board members look at the past compensation to set it for the future. Stop that right now! Look at the skill set. Look at the cost of living, the cost of inflation. There’s no room in the budget? Why not? Is your organization working on a scarce resource model? Is there a way to scale back? Is there a way to increase the board participation to reduce the stress of hours and duties on the staff?

Non-profit works live and breathe our missions. We dream about work, and spend time on our vacations thinking about work, dreaming up things we would do if only we had the time and resources. That dreaming is fun for us, but it can be frustrating if we never get to accomplish even one of those dreams.

If we continue the model of taking away from those working for us to give to those in need, then we’re eventually going to turn that compassion fatigue into burnout. Then we’ll be faced with staffing problems beyond what we already have happen.

It’s not going to happen right away. Develop a strategic plan. In the meantime lift up your favorite organization by volunteering, or even just publicly recognizing them for the work they’re doing. Last Christmas, one of our organizations received pans of take and bake enchiladas from Casa Zamora. One of the staff shared with me later how it meant so much to be able to take home dinner and not have to think about it. It lifted her up, the thought and the time it bought her to spend with her family. What can you do? Bring a home cooked meal to an organization. Don’t get me wrong, our first responders deserve every bit of the meals they get, but remember the others too.

This fall and holiday season, non profits will be asking for a lot. We’ll be asking for monetary donations so we can keep our work going. That’s essential to us — keeping our work going. Help us do that, but take a moment to lift the workers up as well. Show us that you stand untied with them by recognizing the hard work every day. Need an idea? Call my office at 507-373-8670 and I’d be happy to share some ideas with you for our non profit organizations.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.