Compassion Fatigue: From Caring to Collapse and Back Again
Maryt L. Fredrickson, Ninth Judicial District Court & 307 Yoga LLC Jackson, Wyoming
Lawyers are problem solvers. We solve the problems of others. Some of those problems are deeply emotional or traumatic for the clients—seeking custody of a child in a divorce, resolving elder care for a parent amidst angry siblings, representing someone with debilitating personal injuries, defending a client’s business and livelihood, working as a guardian ad litem, seeking domestic violence protection orders, and any number of areas in criminal law, to name a few. Paraphrasing the words of Professor John Burman, the client comes to us because they are experiencing the most difficult problems of their lives.
Inevitably, as we help our clients through their legal challenges we take on some of their emotional burden. But unlike social workers, nurses, or therapists, lawyers are not necessarily trained in how to cope with the emotional demands of our work. We are trained in technical skills like research and writing and oral advocacy. We are not necessarily trained to recognize and proactively address the effects of our practice, particularly when those effects include emotional strain.1
“Compassion fatigue” is the cumulation of physical, emotional, and psychological stressors resulting in feelings of depletion, disengagement and disinterest as well as feeling helpless and over-whelmed.2 It is much like burnout, although there are differences. Burnout may be caused by working too many days without a true break, by institutional stress, or by a large workload. Burnout may arise gradually. Compassion fatigue, while similar, is caused by working with one or more clients who have been exposed to their own trauma and pain. Compassion fatigue might arise suddenly. Notably, compassion fatigue may be more likely to arise if an attorney is already beginning to experience burnout. Compassion fatigue is not limited to practicing attorneys. It also may be experienced by judges, court staff, paralegals, and legal assistants.
Signs & Symptoms