Compassion fatigue: A malady that afflicts the top ranks

‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’. Nothing can be as true in these times, when managers are dealing with their own personal issues while lending emotional support to their team members who have suffered personal loss

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It has been about 18 months since the pandemic changed the world of work. It has turned our lives, personal and professional, topsy turvy. The second wave, in particular, wreaked havoc in the lives of many. What is worse is, its after-effects continue to take a toll. Multiple mental health issues, which were previously unheard of, have reared their heads.

Post the second wave of infections, managers have been dealing with teams where employees have suffered personal tragedies. This requires employers and leaders to be empathetic towards their team members, lending them emotional and mental support. They have had to continuously look out for their colleagues and subordinates, showing empathy, counselling them, calming them down, and helping assuage their fears and handle their personal and professional issues.

All this has taken a toll on the mental health of those at the top, that is, the ones at the helm. This phenomenon is called ‘compassion fatigue’, and was associated primarily with the medical profession in the pre-pandemic era.

“It is difficult to say the least, but leadership comes with huge challenges. We have to develop the ability to manage unprecedented crises because once one is in a top leadership position, people depend on one”

Ravi Mishra, senior vice president- HR, Aditya Birla Chemicals

“Symptoms of compassion fatigue are many and can affect one quickly. It may suddenly lead to complete mental blockage and severe headaches. It may even completely drain one of energy,” says Debjani Roy, CHRO, Mind Your Fleet.

Managers are human too

The second wave has resulted in employees developing a plethora of issues which are weighing them down, emotionally. However, their emotional burden is eased somewhat when they come in contact with their managers and leaders. By venting out to them, these emotionally burdened employees end up sharing their trauma with their leaders and managers.

Now, the ‘listeners’, that is, the managers /leaders, are humans too, and have their own personal issues to manage and deal with. While trying to juggle their personal problems amidst these uncertainties, even offering a sympathetic shoulder to their employees to cry on, or lending emotional support to their team members, increases the chances of the leaders suffering ‘compassion fatigue’.

“Compassion fatigue has been experienced the most during the pandemic, and therefore, it is important to look at it from a pandemic perspective. The fatigue is not restricted to people in HR roles alone, but has taken everyone in its embrace. Even people in smaller managerial roles in addition to those in top positions are vulnerable to it, because of the increase in personal problems ever since the contagion,” she continues.

The issue of ‘compassion fatigue’ has become more prevalent in the corporate world, and with most people not even aware of the existence of such a phenomenon, they are not particularly equipped to deal with it. Managers themselves are not immune to such issues themselves.

“The fatigue is not restricted to people in HR roles alone, but has taken everyone in its embrace. Even people in smaller managerial roles in addition to those in top positions are vulnerable to it, because of the increase in personal problems ever since the contagion”

Debjani Roy, CHRO, Mind Your Fleet

Not easy at the top

Ravi Mishra, senior vice president- HR, Aditya Birla Chemicals, details that during the second wave, he had to handle his personal issues and simultaneously help his team out. He was almost at the brink of a mental collapse.

Approaching the situation professionally, he was compassionate with his team to a great extent, allowing them certain liberties in order for them to deal with their tragedies.

“Business will never surpass human values,” he points out, so his approach was to “keep all modes of communication open for our employees and ensure that they are comfortable in sharing their personal issues with us.” Some of them had lost close family members and were traumatised.

Mishra explains that in order to ensure the wellbeing of the employees and lend them emotional support, “leeway from the company is essential”. However, while doing so, Mishra himself was simultaneously going through personal turmoil that almost led him to a burnout.

“Managers need to find ways to strike a balance even when they are out of balance. The basic idea is to always look at the upside. For a manager or leader, who has to deal with a large team, it is very important to recharge or take a pause and rebuild emotionally, mentally and physically. A concentrated effort to get oneself on the right footing is extremely important”

Arman Chaudhary, Former HR head

“It is difficult to say the least, but leadership comes with huge challenges. We have to develop the ability to manage unprecedented crises because once one is in a top leadership position, people depend on one. Hence, one has to leave one’s own personal issues aside,” he said.

Striking a balance

Former HR head, Arman Chaudhary, says that managers caught in such a spot need to prioritise self-care in order to avoid falling victim to ‘compassion fatigue’.

“Managers need to find ways to strike a balance even when they are out of balance. The basic idea is to always look at the upside. For a manager or leader, who has to deal with a large team, it is very important to recharge or take a pause and rebuild emotionally, mentally and physically. A concentrated effort to get oneself on the right footing is extremely important,” advises Chaudhary.

Roy believes that the onus of identifying people vulnerable to compassion fatigue lies with the higher-ups. In line with Chaudhary’s thoughts, she also believes that decompressing people is only possible when the organisation rotates positions, when necessary. Hence, those in positions requiring high levels of engagement, can be rotated to positions requiring comparatively lower levels of engagement. This will allow them to replenish their personal health. Also, hiring coaches and mentors can also be beneficial, where external help is employed to listen to the employees and recharge them.

Well-connected support circles

Debjani Roy rightly draws attention to the fact that managers cannot be expected to deal with ‘compassion fatigue’ alone. The entire organisation needs to be well connected to keep the condition from setting in.

She suggests creating concentric support circles to beat down compassion fatigue. In short, each part of the corporate chain needs to be well connected and be a support to the other. Therefore, “If a manager is trying to help out the team members, the person above the manager must also be connected with those team members and interact with them on their personal issues. As a result, even if managers appear to be on the verge of experiencing compassion fatigue, the higher ups will be able to notice or sense it and give them time to cool off,” she concludes.

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