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The vicarious impacts of helping work: the joy and the pain
The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily, and not be touched by it, is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.
The purpose of this blog is to offer a graphic overview of the 'joy' and the 'pain' in helping work: the pleasant and challenging vicarious impacts of your work as a health or education professional, carer or other kind of helper. It invites you to reflect upon, be curious, learn about and build awareness of how your work is impacting you - for better, worse, or anything in between - in order to support you to keep doing the work you love without burning out.
Take a look at the graphics below to understand how your helping role might be affecting you.
What is the 'Joy - Pain Spectrum'?
Helping work requires us to step into another’s experience, in order to understand, meet, be with, or collaboratively transform it in some way.
The experience is shared: the struggles, the pain; the triumphs and the joy.
Whilst workers are trained to, and practise keeping themselves separate, inevitably we step into the joy and the pain of those with whom we work.
Just as doing this helps to make changes in the lives of those with whom we work, in turn, it has an impact on us: it is a reciprocal, neurobiological phenomenon.
We can conceptualise this as a spectrum with two sides:
- pain, fatigue and exhaustion at one end
- and joy, satisfaction and energy at the other.
Both ends of this spectrum are a natural and normal part of the work; and can be seen through the following perspectives:
- moral health
- vicarious impacts
To see this as a whole, we can conceive of this as a spectrum:
What are the differences here?
Let's unpack this in some more detail...
** Please note, the term 'compassion fatigue' is here due to its common usage, but please note the debate urging the use of the term 'empathic strain' instead here.
For those interested in a deeper dive, you are invited to explore these concepts through the 5-part blog series, 'The Joy - Pain spectrum series' here.
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Post-traumatic growth is a familiar concept to many. But what about other positive impacts that workers can experience? Vicarious resilience and compassion satisfaction help us to understand the ways that workers in helping or caring roles can be positively impacted, or even transformed, by witnessing the strength and resilience of others. Holding an awareness of both ends of the spectrum - the joy and the pain in the work - may hold the key for a healthy, successful and durable career.
Header image: Luca Bravo