“Caregivers” is a broad category that includes people caring for children, aging parents, those who are ill, victims of various tragedies, and those with special needs.
Given how 2020 and 2021 have been taxing for just about everyone — considering the pandemic’s impact on hospitals, the need to socially distance, in some cases, mostly work from home, and at times to home school children — caregivers especially seem to be under a lot of stress.
The term “caregiver fatigue” was first used in the 1990s to explain how hospital staff is prone to experiencing lots of stress and exhaustion as a result of their repeated, daily exposure to emergencies. Today, this term extends to people in many other types of caring and essential roles, such as teachers and social workers.
With the arrival of summer 2021 and hope for an end to Covid19 on the horizon, are caregivers finally able to take much-needed breaks? Let's take a look at risk factors for experiencing this type of distress, according to experts, as well as self-care strategies that caregivers can use to prevent burnout and restore their energy.
What Causes “Caregiver Fatigue”
Caregiver fatigue is also called “compassion fatigue” and “caregiver burnout,” which all describe emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize and feel compassion for others. What exactly is “compassion”? It's sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
The main cause of caregiver fatigue is stress, due to the result of working directly with victims of disasters, trauma, and illnesses, along with the need to care for those who are dependent on others for their basic needs.
People working in certain fields are more susceptible to compassion/caregiver fatigue. These include healthcare workers, child protection workers, social workers, teachers, palliative care workers, police officers, and firefighters are among the most vulnerable.
For example, research conducted by the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project suggests that anywhere from 25–50% of healthcare workers experience symptoms of compassion fatigue. In another study, 86% of emergency room nurses met the criteria for compassion fatigue.
Other groups of people who can experience compassion burnout include “essential” and “frontline workers” such as journalists, production and food processing workers, janitors and maintenance workers, and agricultural workers, plus non-professionals who take close care of others, such as family members caring for those with a chronic illness or for children (especially when balancing these obligations with work-related demands).
Many people who fall into these categories are considered vital for the core functions of the economy and society, with most remaining on the job throughout the Covid19 pandemic, including in face-to-face situations that may put them at higher risk for becoming ill.
The majority of these roles require labor that needs to be done in person rather than from home. And for people such as parents to young children and those tending to elderly relatives, the care involved can feel almost like a 24/7 job, which becomes especially stressful when typical resources such as daycare or senior centers are no longer available.
Symptoms that can be caused by caregiver fatigue include helplessness and depression, trouble concentrating, emotional numbness, irritability, social withdrawal, trouble sleeping, and aches and pains. Burnout can also cause people to miss work due to exhaustion, plus ongoing emotional stress is known to compromise one's immune system, leaving them at a higher risk of becoming sick.
The National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that around 53 million American adults served as unpaid caregivers in some capacity in 2020, with almost 90% caring for a relative. The same survey found that 40 percent of caregivers felt emotionally stressed, about 20 percent reported it caused financial problems, and about 20 percent felt physically strained due to their demands.
How Caregivers Can Take The Best Care of Themselves
While it may not be possible to completely avoid caregiver fatigue, considering these roles are essential and often life-saving, there are some habits and tools that can make a big difference in coping with stress.
Experts recommend that people dealing with caregiver/compassion fatigue focus on keeping up a self-care routine as much as possible, which includes eating well, exercising, and sleeping enough. All of these healthy habits have a direct impact on one's ability to feel grounded, calm, and energized.
According to experts at the Cleveland Clinic, it’s common for caregivers to feel guilty if they spend time on themselves rather than focusing on the people they're caring for, however, neglecting self-care is one of the biggest risk factors for experiencing severe caregiver fatigue symptoms such as depression.
If you're a caregiver, be realistic about the fact that you can't “be on” and offer support to others 24/7; rather, you need time to unwind and do things that bring you joy.
Ask yourself if there's anyone you can turn to for extra support, such as local parent groups, a social worker, community organizations, support groups, or respite care services (government-provided care programs). Speaking with a therapist is also a great way to learn ways to cope with stress and to face your negative feelings such as resentment and anxiety head-on, rather than denying that you have them.
Take a look at your schedule and try to put aside at least 1-2 hours per day when you focus on yourself, whether that means going for a walk outside, cooking healthy meals at home, reading, or meeting up with friends. If possible, build time to socialize and laugh into your day, since humor and conversations with others can help naturally lift your mood and decrease feelings of isolation.
It's also wise to limit how much news and media coverage you expose yourself to since this can trigger anxiety and worsen desensitization to people who are suffering.
Finally, consider if there's work you can do internally to deal with perfectionism and over-conscientiousness, increasing the risk for you dealing with caregiver-related stress. Studies have found that those who have these characteristics, especially if they also have low levels of social support and high levels of stress in their personal lives, are much more likely to develop caregiver/compassion fatigue.