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Compassion fatigue and the importance of reflective practice

Five years into my legal career and six months PQE, I came across the concept of vicarious trauma, also known as compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the impact on a person from helping others in a stressful or traumatic experience. This impact can often be physical, emotional, and psychological.

It is academically defined as:

‘The emotional and physical fatigue experienced by professionals due to their chronic use of empathy in helping others in distress.’ (D Turgoose and L Maddox. ‘Predictors of compassion fatigue in mental health professionals: a narrative review’, Traumatology, (2017) 23(2), 172-185)

One of the most prominent skills you will find in any lawyer is the ability to empathise. However, I, like probably many, have never had a conversation about the impact of working in a sector which focuses on helping clients in what is likely one of the most extreme points in their life. Most areas of law focus on helping clients when they are facing extraordinary challenges and it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are experiencing one of the worst days of our clients’ lives every working day.

One of the best ways to address this is through opening the conversation and sharing coping mechanisms specifically for this.

The effect of compassion fatigue can bleed outside of work and impact on our personal lives also. Many who suffer from compassion fatigue see that they are less compassionate towards loved ones and neglect their own needs. In the legal sector, little research has been carried out regarding the impact of vicarious trauma compared to other professions.

How can we protect ourselves against vicarious trauma and ensure we continue to be at our optimum for our clients?

  1. The first step is to be aware of the signs of compassion fatigue and its effect, which will allow us to put mechanisms in place to deal with the traumatic experiences we may encounter.
  2. Make sure we have a structured working day, taking regular breaks where we can take time to process and manage the stresses from that day.
  3. Talking to colleagues and sharing our experiences will help us unload any stress whilst also being able to learn coping mechanisms from each other.

What positives can we take away from compassion fatigue?

We can learn a lot from our clients who are going through difficult times and can build a resilience which allows us to compartmentalise to ensure we meet  our clients’ needs, irrespective of the trauma.

Reflective Practice

From researching this myself and engaging in conversations about compassion fatigue, I believe that reflective practice is key to understanding and tackling it.

Reflective practice allows us the opportunity to increase our self-awareness, understand how we can best deal with various trauma, and implement strategies which allow us to better the service we are providing to our clients.

This is a practice that we should start encouraging junior lawyers to engage in to help manage increasing workloads and stressful situations which they will encounter. Most lawyers will have the skills to problem solve, seek support, and think around difficult issues but we need to foster an ability to actively cope with vicarious trauma, so we can address the build-up of such stress.

Examples of active coping to help manage vicarious trauma:

  1. By focusing on solving the problem, we naturally focus on the technicalities of the traumatic event and how to solve this for our client.
  2. Additionally, by identifying and addressing our emotional response, remembering we are human and seeing this as a strength that, whilst we may not be able to understand directly what our clients are going through, we understand that they are experiencing severe trauma and disruption to their lives and we are able to be able to help them.
  3. Understanding, that due to the nature of our roles, we cannot avoid the traumatic experiences we will encounter in our cases.

How do Minster Law help us deal with the effects of Vicarious Trauma?

  1. Regular Peer Group meetings allow us to share cases with our colleagues and gain alternative perspectives on an issue.
  2. Regular meetings with supervisors ensure that we have the opportunity to seek support and guidance
  3. An emphasis on colleague wellbeing and activities and events put on
  4. Time For Me Days allow us to pause and have time to ourselves, which does not eat into annual leave and allows the flexibility to manage that around your workload.

What can we do going forward?

Working in the legal sector is known for being academically demanding. However, it is important to acknowledge the emotional load that comes with practising as a lawyer.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility as an individual and a community, to create a culture which eradicates the stigma of not being able to cope due to compassion fatigue, creating a network that values our wellbeing and understanding of traumatic caseloads through honest and open conversations, and putting tools and mechanisms in place to overcome any struggles that may arise.