The 'Joy - Pain Spectrum' in helping: compassion satisfaction (Part 2/5)

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17 Feb 2021

Within the helping professions we often focus on the more challenging end of the joy - pain spectrum in this work: exhaustion, compassion fatigue, secondary stress and vicarious trauma. This blog series seeks to rectify that, with Part 1 focusing on vicarious resilience, Part 2 unpacking compassion satisfaction, Part 3 looks at suggested changes in terminology and Part 4 addressing the importance of, and risks associated with, connecting with others when in a helping role. Cultivating awareness of both ends of the joy - pain spectrum in the helping professions is essential in supporting worker wellbeing.

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Here are some questions for you.

Take a moment and jot down some answers:

  • What is it that protects you in your work?
  • What is it that compelled you to choose a job that serves others?
  • Do you hold hope for those with whom you work? If so, what supports this?
  • How do you hold hope in the face of red tape, toxic systems and challenging clients?
  • What is going well at work?
  • What do you get out of your job?
  • What do you enjoy about your work?

Both the positive and negative aspects of doing one’s job influence one's professional quality of life.

How often do you consider these more positive, joyful aspects of your work compared to the frustrating or difficult aspects?

If you’re like most, it’s likely you’re focused on the latter. I simultaneously thank and blame negativity bias, and our innate need for survival, for this focus on the negative.

I get it: helping or caring for others can be hard!

And we need our reptilian networks of fight, flight, freeze and shut down, in order to survive.

There is no doubt that if you are having a hard time, it is important to address it.

But it is equally vital to pay attention to the small moments of progress, joy and hope. In order to thrive, and therefore continue helping others in our work, we need to sustain our professional quality of life. After all, we are of no use in our role otherwise!

What is compassion satisfaction?

Compassion satisfaction involves the sense of pleasure, empowerment and satisfaction that you may feel when you are doing your job well in a caring or helping role: it outlines the positive and protective effects of helping.

Unlike compassion fatigue, which leaves you feeling drained and overwhelmed, compassion satisfaction is protective and enables you to feel a sense of accomplishment and joy in your work. See the following blogs for more information about compassion fatigue / empathic strain , and risking connection here.

What is the difference between vicarious resilience and compassion satisfaction?

If you’ve read the previous blog on vicarious resilience, you may be curious about the difference between compassion satisfaction and vicarious resilience?

Compassion satisfaction refers to fulfillment that you may feel in your work and from the act of helping.

Vicarious resilience describes the positive transformation that may occur when your world view changes for the better as a result of your experience of reciprocal growth between a worker and their student / patient / client.

Professional Quality of Life: Compassion Satisfaction & Compassion Fatigue

Interest in the positive impacts of helping or caring roles on workers inspired a group of researchers to develop the Professional Quality of Life tool (ProQuol) around 25 years ago. This tool was created to assess the positive (compassion satisfaction) and negative (compassion fatigue) impacts on workers.

Originally developed for workers supporting victims of torture, there have been a number of subsequent studies which have explored factors that support compassion satisfaction in emergency nurses, acute care nurses, teachers, trauma therapists, and frontline mental health workers.

The folks who designed the ProQuol and its new regulators at The Center for Victims of Torture have been so generous in sharing this tool and other resources at no cost. You can have a look and take the brief self test here.

The relationship between compassion satisfaction, compassion fatigue and burnout is complex.

Whilst compassion satisfaction does not prevent compassion fatigue or burnout, it is seen as playing a protective role for workers.

So, what helps to build compassion satisfaction?

The above research outlines the following mechanisms and support structures as being essential components of generating compassion satisfaction:

  • Ongoing and specialised training and education
  • Clinical supervision
  • Meaningful recognition within the workplace
  • Authentic, supportive and stable leadership
  • Peer support
  • An ability to have clear boundaries between work and home
  • Adequate self care strategies
  • Authentic connections to clients / patients / students
  • Varied caseload

Why is compassion satisfaction important?

Compassion satisfaction helps you to:

  • feel satisfied & invigorated from the act of helping
  • handle new protocols & technology
  • feel successful & happy with your work
  • want to continue to engage in your work
  • maintain your own mental health
  • have a sustainable career

And it brings a sense of purpose and positive energy that gives you warm, fuzzy feelings when a student / client / patient’s functioning or health improves.

You feel hopeful about your ability to make a positive and constructive differences in the work that you do.

Unsurprisingly, this can generate more positive feelings about your own capacity, thereby instilling feelings of hope and potentially creating a more collegial and happier workplace in general.

Further, these warm, fuzzy feelings aren't just nice: they are an essential part of our connection to our safe, connected, ventral-vagal state. If we can sit with and notice the physical sensations, thoughts and feelings that we have in this state, we can be aware of what can help to lead us back to these warm, fuzzy states when we need it most.

Who wouldn't want this?!

Related Resources

Header image: Jude Beck