Why the hell should I care?

Compassion fatigue can hit the kindest of hearts. Hester Lacey on how to stay looking sympathetic
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You're a manager who needed a report yesterday. The member of staff who was supposed to deliver has come up with nothing but an excuse. You are so furious you can't even be bothered to listen. You shout at them, very loudly. Or perhaps you work in the customer service department. A hysterical client is berating you down the phone because their new kitchen hasn't been delivered. You couldn't give a damn. Maybe you're a social worker. A difficult client has once again landed themselves in deep trouble. Your first instinct is to slap them. Sympathy fatigue, also known as compassion fatigue, where people simply run out of finer feelings, can be found in many professions - in fact, in any job which involves frequent contact with others, whether members of the public or colleagues.

Take Nick, a clinical psychologist whose job involves working with up to seven patients a day, spending an hour with each. "With every patient, hour after hour, I have to listen to their particular problem," he says. "I have to empathise, show understanding, laugh when appropriate and not laugh when it's inappropriate. By now I've heard every possible problem known to man. There is nothing new, it's the same stuff over and over again. I used to really feel for my patients, feel their pain and suffering. Now I find it difficult to even care about them. I am just not interested any more in the people I see. I don't care any more."

Shona works in a fast-food restaurant. "I have to smile and smile at the customers and act as if I care," she says. "I don't. How can I? It makes my jaw ache. I just want to get them served as soon as possible."

Customer care is no place for the snippy, and Tony's line manager in the large department store where he works warned him that his manner when dealing with complaints needed working on. "You just don't seem to care," she complained to him. "The reason I didn't seem to care," explains Tony, "is that I really didn't care! The first couple of complaints you do deal with sensitively, but after a while, they just become problems, not people." Tony says frankly he really doesn't give a fig if the new three-piece suite has a mark on it or the new hi-fi has broken down. "They are just problems to be processed," he says.

Getting fed up with people you encounter through work is widespread, according to Sandi Mann, who has a doctorate in work psychology, and it's a cumulative process. "It's like giving to charity," she says. "The first couple of times someone stops you in the street asking for money you give. The 20th time you don't." Dr Mann is author of a new book, Hiding What We Feel, Faking What We Don't, which tackles the subject of dealing with emotions in the workplace. Sympathy fatigue, she says, can be found in all kinds of professional situations. "In management, when you need your staff to do things at particular times and you've heard all the excuses under the sun, the first few times you might not be unsympathetic - but then you just want things done."

People who work in customer services are also particularly susceptible, she says. "You've heard it all before and you're just not interested." In the caring professions, people are more likely to put up a protective shell - in order to be able to do their jobs they can't identify personally with every single case. "They do care but they have to distance themselves emotionally," says Dr Mann. "And they can certainly be fatigued by minor irritations and routine." About the only professions where sympathy fatigue is officially seen as desirable, she says, are ones where a hard attitude is part of the job description - such as debt collectors, who mustn't be swayed by sob stories.

Tackling compassion fatigue is part of "emotion management", an area that is coming increasingly under the spotlight as employers begin to realise that employees can't simply switch off their own feelings and assume a new corporately acceptable set when they come to work. "Clients have different and higher expectations these days," says Dr Mann. "They expect to be greeted with a smile and treated like a king, and the operative has to produce the emotional effect that's required. And in the office itself, it's not enough to just do your job well - you have to seem enthusiastic, cheerful, a team player." Her research suggests that, on average, people display fake emotion in one-third of all communications at work, and often even more. "It's a big source of stress," she says. "If you have to do it for half or more of the time it becomes much more of a strain, especially if you are hiding anger or boredom."

Dr Mann suggests two possible solutions for sympathy fatigue. The first is introducing multi-skilling and shift rotation. Often, she explains, people are trained to do just one job, and if that job involves constantly dealing with other people it can quickly result in strain. In one private health care company that she cites as a successful example, staff divide their time between answering the phone and dealing with paperwork, and no one has to spend too long dealing with clients. The second possibility is becoming a competent actor. "There is no way you can feel sympathetic all the time, but customers need and want that sympathy. To enable everyone to be happy, give staff acting lessons." In the US, she points out, corporations take on unemployed actors as greeters - Disneyland employees are referred to as "performers".

But surely a certain degree of professional detachment is fair enough? After all, providing a shoulder to cry on doesn't add anything to the company's coffers. "Some people argue that it's good to be distant," says Dr Mann. "But that kind of macho approach to management is changing. Being able to be sympathetic and relate to people is seen as increasingly important - it's one of the reasons women are being recognised as making good managers." And, she adds ominously, the kind of depersonalisation that goes with compassion fatigue is one of the symptoms of burnout. When you stop seeing other people as human beings and start seeing them simply as units, it's time to worry about yourself.

'Hiding What We Feel, Faking What We Don't' by Dr Sandi Mann is published by Element Books, pounds 9.99.

WATCH OUT IF...

You can't remember people's names and refer to them as "that whinger in the blue suit" or "the varicose veins in bed 62".

You are considering a career change into debt-collecting - it'll be dead easy to retrain.

On hearing that Tim in Special Projects is about to become a dad, you decline to contribute to the office gift. Instead you courier across some files for him to look over while he waits outside the delivery room.

You refuse to believe staff who ring in sick and nag them till they come in, thus precipitating office-wide flu and cold epidemics.

You have lunch at 11am so you can get to the canteen first and don't have to sit with other people hearing their tedious anecdotes about their lives outside work.

You discover your office nickname is something along the lines of "that cold-hearted unfeeling bastard".

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