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Why midwives are at risk of compassion fatigue

Why midwives are at risk of compassion fatigue
Photo: Why midwives are at risk of compassion fatigue
While they might not be familiar with the technical term, for most midwives, one of the most rewarding elements of their job, is ‘compassion satisfaction’.

“Compassion satisfaction is about the pleasure and satisfaction you personally receive and feel from helping others through the work you do,” says psychotherapist Dr Karen Philip.

In simple terms, a midwife’s job is to care for the mother, deliver the baby and ensure both are safe, healthy, and cared for.

The pleasure and satisfaction of aiding the birth of a baby, along with the welfare of the mother, often provides extreme satisfaction for midwives.

“Compassion can help us feel less vulnerable, increase and motivate our strength, and increase our resilience,” says Dr Philip.

“Compassion satisfaction releases the hormone that has a positive effect on our emotional, cognitive and social behaviours, by reducing our levels of stress.”
On the flipside though, ‘compassion fatigue’ refers to the depletion or exhaustion of that compassion – and this can be a common challenge experienced by midwives.

Dr Philip says the result from the continued activation of empathic and sympathetic responses can deplete the midwife, causing fatigue.

“The pressure on midwives is enormous,” she says.

“Most feel a direct responsibility to the mother they are supporting through her pregnancy, and the baby they aid to deliver and care for.

“Midwives work in a field of care and compassion in all they do, and often take care of others before themselves, which can result in compassion fatigue.”

So, how do you know if it’s happening to you?

“If the midwife is not experiencing the same feelings of care and compassion toward the mother, if they are becoming irritable, taking less care in their work, then these are signs of fatigue.”

Other symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
  • exhaustion, feeling constantly mentally and physically tired
  • sadness, no longer finding pleasure in everyday activities
  • questioning their life purpose
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • difficulty functioning
  • isolating from others both at work and/or socially
  • difficulty in maintaining inter-professional relationships
  • feeling detached
  • sleep issues
  • receiving an unusual amount of complaints from others
  • chronic physical ailments such as gastrointestinal problems, chronic pain and headaches
  • irritability and anger
  • depleting self-esteem

The repercussions of compassion fatigue can be far-reaching, extending both to the midwife themself, along with their patients – which in turn, creates an additional burden for the midwife to carry.

“Midwives suffering compassion fatigue can develop a feeling of enormous guilt that they are not at their best,” Dr Philip says.

“This can be passed onto the mother who can feel less secure with their midwife.

“A midwife is a caring and compassionate person, and if they are not operating at their optimum, they can feel extreme guilt and remorse for their patient which can add to the fatigue and stress they may already be under.”

But having compassion fatigue doesn’t mean a midwife has simply stopped caring about their patients.

“You can’t take the care out of someone,” says Dr Philip.

“However, that care can be dislodged temporarily if their mind and body are sending messages to care for themself over others if under fatigue.

“Midwives are drawn to the profession because they are compassionate and want to help others.”

Any midwife showing signs of compassion fatigue need to take stock, and recognise this as an issue which could impact themself and their patient.

Dr Philip suggests taking a break, resting as much as possible, and enjoying outside activities to get their mind off work.

“Spend time with family and friends and if you’re struggling with negative emotions of burnout, obtain professional counselling support,” she says.

Other self-care strategies include:
  • exercise, massage, yoga, and meditation
  • eating a healthy and balanced diet
  • drinking plenty of water
  • ensuring they get sufficient rest and sleep
  • remaining engaged in family and personal relationships
  • participating in enjoyable leisure and recreational activities
The most important thing to remember is that compassion fatigue can be overcome. But only if it’s recognised first.

“Compassion fatigue occurs when the midwife places more importance on others, rather than themselves.

“This is their natural function and while admirable, care needs to be taken for their own welfare.”

To prevent compassion fatigue from taking over, midwives should ensure they allocate time away from the workplace for rest and/or leisure.

“The ability to rejuvenate is essential, allowing motivation and care to remain optimal,” says Dr Philip.

“Midwives have a responsibility to care for their own health needs and recognise the importance of being proactive in doing so.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.