Date: 20 July 2022

The theme of the recent meeting of the Quality Circle was Compassion fatigue and practitioner wellbeing – Supporting compassionate practice through supporting practitioners’. We discussed the impact of compassion fatigue on professionals’ own wellbeing and the impact this has on practice. At a time when many professionals feel under significant pressure this seemed a hugely important discussion.

‘Compassion fatigue’ describes the negative psychological symptoms that caregivers can experience either through primary or secondary trauma. It is widely accepted that those working in the emergency services will be affected but less so when thinking about social workers, lawyers, barristers and judges.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include irritability, lapses in concentration, feelings of sadness, a desire to withdraw (including more deeply into work) and an inability to see the children and parents for the people they are. ‘Burn out’ can be gradual and those suffering from it may not recognise the stage that they’ve reached.

As a social worker with over 20 years’ experience in local authorities, I have seen first-hand the impact of the work we do going unrecognised until a person hits a crisis point. And we acknowledged that it can be difficult for professionals to say how they’re feeling when they are presumed to be the ones who are calm and containing for others.

So why was this important for Quality Circle to think about? Social workers, lawyers and barristers are privy to confidential information about the lives of the children and families they represent, including sometimes very difficult details about the abuse and neglect that children suffer. To do their jobs well, this knowledge is crucial but it comes with an emotional cost that is too often not recognised.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly had an impact, and perhaps particularly on newly qualified social workers and lawyers who have been working more in isolation than prior to the pandemic and perhaps not had access to the peer support that they need.

There are a number of practical thing we can do to help individuals who may be experiencing compassion fatigue. This can include exercise, mindfulness, group activities such as being in a choir, and also making sure we talk about these experiences regularly, not just when a crisis point is reached.

It is important that as professionals we set our own boundaries and don’t feel pressured to accept every demand on our time. And managers need to make sure there is time and space for reflection and help build those trusting relationships between colleagues so everyone can talk about the emotional impact of the work without feeling that they will be criticised.

At CoramBAAF, we have been discussing how online working can bring a pressure to demonstrate presence at work and one means of doing this is to accept every meeting request. However, we all need time to process the work that we’re doing and whilst there is a level of personal responsibility to manage our diaries, within organisations this also needs to be accepted as integral to our work.

Quality Circle considered whether mandatory reflective supervision should be recommended to the Family Justice Board. It was acknowledged that it takes time and effort to embed such support but that the benefits outweigh the cost in the long run. Professionals suffering from compassion fatigue will struggle to treat the families with the respect and understanding that they need when crucial decisions are being made about their children.


Clare Seth, Kinship Care Consultant, CoramBAAF