Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of
traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written
and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is
available with written permission from the Foundation.
Phase of a Response
“Love, Compassion and Tolerance are necessities, not luxuries. Without them,
humanity cannot survive."
-Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Over the past few years, psychologists and sociologists have devoted a great deal of
time to researching and teaching others—especially caregivers, about
self-compassion. This topic is now included in all of the Human Services Response™
training classes presented by the Foundation as I believe it is paramount to self-care
for all responders. Recently while reading an article by Christopher Germer, a leading
psychologist in the field of self-compassion, I came upon the terms, attachment
fatigue. I believe this has great relevance to our work as family assistance
Over the thirty plus years that I have had the opportunity to train, respond, and
evaluate the care teams and special assistance teams’ responses following
work-place tragedies, I have continued to observe the emotional distress that
certain parts of the assignment may cause. The separation process or saying
goodbye at the end of a response is a great example of this. The bonding that
occurs between employee responders and the survivors they serve can be very
healthy to the survivors, employees, and the company—but must be managed.
Most care team leaders know there are steps to managing the termination of the
relationship between employee responders and survivors–and for the sake of all
involved, follow a process. In almost all cases, it becomes evident within a few days
when the job will end. At that time, the team members are advised to begin the
process of saying goodbye to the survivors. This involves letting the survivors know
when they will be leaving and returning to their regular jobs within the company. Thus,
when the employee team says goodbye, it is not a surprise to survivors, but
somewhat expected and understood, albeit, often sad for both.
The type of distress experienced by the employee responder has often been referred
to by mental health counselors as compassion fatigue. Since I, like many caregivers
have always found my work to be energizing, I never liked that terminology. I was
encouraged when I recently read that psychologist Dr. Germer considers compassion
fatigue to be a misnomer. He suggests that the term attachment fatigue is more
descriptive of caregiver stress.
Fatigue that may be debilitating results from becoming overly attached to specific
outcomes and high expectations about the effects of our work. In the case of
employee teams, one of the best examples occurs when, as so often happens,
lawsuits and legal actions take place at the end of an assignment. The employee
team has given generously of their time and energy, often to the point where they
have denied their own family's needs, while they are involved in work that involves
long hours and can be physically as well as emotionally draining. The attachment
may go beyond how they feel about the survivors and may also include the belief that
because of the care they have provided, they may have prevented the survivors from
becoming involved in the legal aftermath that follows the acute phase of a
response—the period when family assistance teams are involved. They often express
disappointment when they hear that lawsuits have been filed, regardless of how much
care they have given.
Another example of where attachment fatigue may apply pertains to the suffering that
some employees experience over the media's reactions to their efforts to assist
families. For example, approximately three weeks into an airline’s family assistance
response to a major airline crash where over 100 passengers and crew members
died, an article appeared in the local newspaper referencing the employee team’s
response to the survivors they were assisting. A team leader noticed a marked
change in the employees’ attitudes, as he entered the offices the morning the article
appeared. On this day, the enthusiasm and excitement that had permeated the
previous morning briefings had given way to despair. It was clear that the team had
been feeling great satisfaction over their work until the unflattering article appeared.
The journalist implied that the company employees' efforts were for the sole purpose
of preventing survivors from filing lawsuits.
The negative press article is another example where attachment fatigue became a
problem for employee responders. This was not so much an attachment to the
families of the deceased and the passenger survivors, but rather to the expectation
that their work would be perceived by the general public to be as valuable and
honorable as was the intention behind their efforts. Sadly with a few strokes on a
keyboard, a journalist had brought down their sense of self-worth and tarnished
their good feelings about their work.
"If you want others to be happy practice compassion, and if you want yourself
to be happy practice compassion."
-Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Unlike mental health professionals who are routinely exposed to emotional fatigue
from listening and supporting clients on a daily basis, these feelings are new to most
employee responders. Therefore, employees need assistance in managing this type
of disappointment and disillusionment.
Experience has shown that educating employees in advance of these potential
morale downers may help them sustain their good feelings about their work,
regardless of others' perceptions. In addition to training and education, coordinators
and team managers can help the team members by checking in with them on a daily
basis to determine if they are having any issues or challenges in managing their
emotions. Team members need to be reminded of the various resources they have
access to for support during these stressful times.
It is particularly important for leaders to help manage the “goodbye” process.
Employees often become involved in the process of caring to the point of where they
lose sight of the need to plan for ending the assignment and often need help in
preparing for the termination in advance. Talking through the process with the team
members from the very beginning and helping them set up the time and date of the
formal separation has proven to be helpful. Occasionally, even roleplaying with a
team member on how they will say goodbye to survivors can be invaluable in helping
ease the potential attachment fatigue.
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