Caring for you whilst caring for others – by RN Sue Rittmeyer

“The impact of caring for others is gaining more discussion than in previous years. Once called the ‘burden’ of caring, which sadly comes with much stigma.

Burnout, Stress, Vicarious Trauma, Carer Fatigue, and Poor Resilience are terms that are often heard. Ultimately, the name of the condition, or situation is irrelevant when you or a loved one are experiencing burnout.

Burnout can happen to anyone in a caring role. Onset may appear to be sudden, but in reality it is insidious, occurs over time and it is only when things reach crisis point that burnout is identified.

This is mainly due to lack of awareness of early symptoms. Increased awareness in the workplace will reduce the burden of burnout as sufferers are identified and assisted earlier.

Much confusion exists regarding burnout and stress. These two conditions are often confused, regarded to be the same thing and thought to present the same. The following points identify the key differences between these equally life changing conditions.

Stress presents as an over-engagement in a situation/relationship, being ‘emotional’ or over-reactive, those suffering from stress also present with a sense of urgency and hyperactivity, along with a lack of energy. The conflicting combination of lack of energy and urgency to complete tasks, inevitably leads to anxiety. The primary damage is physical, resulting in high blood pressure, insomnia, altered appetite and in some cases substance use (alcohol or illicit substances).

Burnout on the other hand is more psychological than physical. Having said that, there is still an element of physical damage when burnout is present. Burnout presents as disengagement, blunted emotions, and a pervading sense of helplessness or hopelessness. The sufferer lacks motivation, and has lost sight of their ideals and hopes. If unidentified, this lack of motivation and disengagement eventually leads to depression and emotional detachment. The primary damage is emotional, resulting in reduced social interactions, damaged relationships (often the first obvious indicator), reduced self-esteem and major depression.

The major take home message from this comparison is that a person that is stressed will be irritable, busy, and constantly trying to ‘fix’ things, and often complaining of fatigue. Whereas, the burnt out person will not appear to care anymore, they won’t bother trying, as they will not see the point.

The ideal situation would be to identify occupation related stress, commence healthy strategies and seek emotional support. Alongside this, initiating workplace changes to assist in ongoing management and prevention of work related stress will improve the environment for the sufferer and their colleagues.

There are several strategies available to reduce stress and support a healthy work life balance.

The following are accessible options that are cost and time effective. They also require little planning and effort, important things to consider when the stressed person is suffering from urgency to complete tasks and reduced energy levels:

  • Reflective journaling has been recommended for many years as an aid to improving clinical practice, enabling self-review, as a tool to evaluate internal thoughts and ideas, and their impact on empathy and decision making.
  • Exercise releases healthy endorphins which help generate energy, and improve mood.
  • Taking time out first thing in the morning is beneficial. Before getting out of bed take 5 minutes to gather your thoughts and plan your day.
  • Other useful activities include reading a book, listening to music, watching television and meditation.
  • Tapping into your creative side is also known to be beneficial in changing thought processes, releasing stress and assisting in regaining a sense of balance.
  • Creativity is very individual and can include, home decorating, rearranging the furniture, colouring in, photography, writing, crafts, and the list goes on.
  • Lastly structured stress management is key to reducing the risk of burnout. The most effective strategy to reduce stress involves a program tailored specifically to your situation, personality and other personal factors which may be contributing. This is best achieved by seeking the professional services of a counsellor or psychologist. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is used to overcome the anxiety component of stress. Relaxation therapy assists in stress management strategies, resilience training assists prevention and other tailored activities that include debriefing, reflection, and utilising creativity all support recovery and prevention.

It is also important to keep in mind the relationship between you and your counsellor needs to be therapeutic for the counselling to work. So when considering counselling, make sure you feel comfortable with the counsellor, that you believe you can build a relationship of trust, and that you are completely honest with your counsellor. If you are not “feeling the love” then don’t think that you, the counsellor or the process is at fault. You are not the right fit for each other, often a conversation can rectify things but other times you may need to seek out another counsellor that suits your personality.

Keep in mind burnout doesn’t occur in isolation, if one staff member is suffering from burnout, then their colleagues and their family have also been impacted. A holistic approach to managing burnout is to open discussion with those close to you, their understanding and support are integral to recovery.”

Safe Solutions Counselling and In-Home CareSue Rittmeyer is a qualified psychiatric nurse, has completed a Masters in Nursing Practice (Therapeutic Relationships) and holds a Diploma in Counselling with additional qualifications in the areas of relationship, workplace, and loss and grief counselling. Sue has over 20 years’ experience helping people during difficult times, such as mental illness, loss and grief associated with physical illness, and loss of loved ones. Sue identifies each client as a unique individual deserving of the opportunity to seek solutions to issues impacting on their quality of life. Sue founded her own counselling practice, Safe Solutions Counselling and in-Home Care 18 months ago. Her aim is to assist clients to identify issues, plan an approach to counselling, and then seek solutions together, resulting in personal growth and resolution.

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