When helping hurts the helper

Helping others is not only good for those who are helped and a good thing to do, it also makes the helper happier and healthier too.  John Holmes also said, “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” Emmy Award-winning television producer, Maria Baltazzi, gave a psychological explanation to this. According to her, endorphins, that wonderful brain chemical that gets produced when you are out there doing that three-mile run. It is what puts you into the state athletes refer to as a ‘Runner’s High’. Well, you can experience a similar feeling without busting a lung when you give someone a hand, known as ‘Helper’s High’.  The psychological theory being that helping others produces a natural mild version of morphine high. Now take a pause. Is it true in the times of pandemic? Is it true of doctors, nurses, paramedical staff who are helping patients fight the evil virus and more so when the fight seems to be a long and grimy one? We have several stories world over whereby we know how, energetically and enthusiastically, these people beyond the call of their duty are going extra miles to help others. In the absence of morphine how is it possible for them to work long hours without a break for an extended period and more so under conditions of great hardships, resource constraints, highly hostile environment and under conditions of high risk to themselves.  We hardly realize that the people who work with great compassion to help others, may undergo what we call as ‘Compassion fatigue’.

Compassion fatigue is known as the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. According to American Institute of Stress, “From the research perspective, burnout is considered one of the elements of Compassion Fatigue. From the organizational and social work perspective, it is often distinguished as being different from compassion fatigue in that burnout arises from where one works, whereas compassion fatigue is associated with the work you do. In comparison to burnout, compassion fatigue results from caregivers who frequently must deal with highly distressing situations involving their patients. It has been considered the “cost of caring”. The process goes something like this – you have overflowing enthusiasm and go the extra mile without complaining or prompting, willing to stay late or put in extra hours. At times it might feel like you are losing control, so you roll up your sleeves and work harder, becoming a workaholic because you think the work will make your stress or bad feelings go away. Alas, it does not happen that way.

It becomes more serious when helpers get too attached to alleviate the suffering of their patients, take on the pain of what others are feeling, or overtax and exhaust empathy reserves when they work too deeply in emotionally charged situations. C Figley said, “We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” Take a minute and recall the classic Hindi movie ‘Khamoshi’ which is an intriguing tale of a nurse, Radha, who works in a psychiatric hospital in India. She is treating a patient who is cynical, full of hatred and distrust and develops acute mania. Radha is asked to act as his caring mother-like nurse, to gain his trust, love him, and then make him ready to face everyday life. She gradually becomes more and more involved in her patient’s life, knowing fully well that the patient is going to be discharged soon, and may not even remember the care, love and treatment he received from Radha. Nurse Radha is heart-broken when the patient whom she cared for, pouring out her love and affection, leaves the hospital.

It is rightly said that a heart that always understands also gets tired. A small gesture of lighting a candle, or flashing the light of your camera or beating a drum (thali) for the warriors of this pandemic can help them get out of this fatigue. However, if you are not comfortable with any of the above, at least treat them with dignity, give them a little bit of respect. A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal. Remember it is the time when compassionate people need compassion. Ponder over this question, is taking the role of therapist good for me?

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This article has been penned by Prof Kamal K Jain. He is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at IIM Indore. He can be reached at kamal@iimidr.ac.in

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