Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Causes Compassion Fatigue
> 3/13/2007 9:11:24 AM

In the business world stressed out employees can be a real problem for the bottom line as absenteeism can skyrocket and presenteeism can seriously damage productivity. But for the men and women who work as care providers to our returning war veterans, workplace stress can be damaging on an entirely different level. According to the current edition of Newsweek, the Department of Veteran's Affairs has been working to combat the problem of what they call "provider fatigue," but others have come to call Compassion Fatigue.

As the name implies, compassion fatigue can quite literally mean an inability to continue with the duties that providing care to wounded veterans entails. The problem can also be understood as secondary post-traumatic stress disorder because it presents in much the same way. Newsweek describes symptoms that adhere closely to the presentation of traditional cases of PTSD:

Although it's not listed as an illness in the standard diagnostic manual, it can be seriously debilitating. Symptoms range from nightmares and "invasive thoughts" to anxiety, insomnia and hypervigilance. Case studies often mention a dread of work, including failure to keep appointments and carry out necessary follow-up with patients; in addition to absenteeism, effects often include errors in judgment, difficulty in concentrating, emotional numbness and religious doubts.

When one imagines the stress of caring for the severely damaged men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not hard to understand how this might happen. Many times those in VA hospital ERs are on the front line of combat related PTSD. These doctors and nurses, who might not have thorough mental health training themselves, are being asked to absorb a tremendous amount of pain and suffering. At a certain point, we can hardly blame them for shutting down emotionally.

The good news is that the VA has been working on a program geared specifically to treat caregiver burnout. By helping these men and women recognize their own compassion fatigue and by giving them the tools to help address it, the VA improves the care and service to our veterans at every level. Better support for caregivers will help them perform their duties more effectively therefore better serve the veterans, and hopefully even help ease the transition for the wounded as well as cutting down on costs. The bottom line is that to truly provide a high-level of care, we need to ensure that those providing the care are ready, willing and able to operate at a high level. Treating their stress is perhaps the most important step to making that happen.

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