How Practicing Compassion Can Prevent Burnout (Episode 14)

February 21, 2018

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Darcy Grabenstein: Hello, from SmartLinx Solutions! In today's podcast, we'll talk about the power of compassion and how it can prevent burnout among long-term care professionals. My guest today is Virginia Sampson. Virginia is passionate about disseminating the science-based message of the power of compassion to create success.

Virginia's career began in the legal field. She served as a judge for three and a half years. She also was a full-time caregiver to her husband, who died from ALS. She was a victim of domestic violence, a single parent to four children, a divorcee, a step-parent and more. Now, she travels nationally and internationally to speak about the power of compassion. Welcome, Virginia.

Virginia Sampson: Thank you, Darcy.

DG: You have been through quite a lot. You remind me of Forrest Gump! Before we jump into today's topics, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about how you decided to make spreading the word about compassion your life's work?

VS: It started with the experience of my husband's illness and death. I think that planted the seed. It took a while for it to germinate, but I think the experience of caring for somebody with a terminal illness, and just kind of the reaction of people around us, sparked that interest.

DG: How would you define compassion?

VS: Compassion is when you see someone suffering ― and by that, I don't mean ― first of all, I should probably say they're defining this ― social scientists who are studying this are defining compassion much more broadly than we have thought about in the past, in terms of whatever religion you may be a part of. So, you have to kind of change your thinking a little bit about it, especially when you hear the definition.

It's when you see someone suffering ― again, that's defined differently than someone in physical pain or even emotional pain, but you know ― someone in distress, someone in need, and you are moved to help that person. That's what distinguishes it, say, from empathy or sometimes altruism, is it's the need to take action to help the person you see in distress.

DG: Our listeners are mostly in the long-term care industry. Could you give me a few examples of compassionate resident care, how that would play out in a long-term care setting?

VS: In a long-term care setting ― so compassionate care ― and they're tied into the self-compassion and we're going to talk about that later, but – for example, listening to ― and I realize people are very busy, so these are challenging but, you know, coming in and being mindful of the person you're interacting with at the time. Part of it is actively listening.

We're all busy. We're all distracted and sometimes overwhelmed, and so a part of it is actually listening to what they're saying, focusing on it, and responding. Resident care also can include some appropriate touching, just laying your hand on the person's arm, contact with them when they're talking to you. Those types of things really can start the connection between two people.

DG: We mentioned the word “science-based” evidence. What exactly is the scientific evidence behind that fact, that compassion really does have a positive effect on not just the recipient but the giver as well?

VS: This has been an area of study for the last few years in places like Stanford, UC Berkeley, all over the world and all over the country, is the incredible mind/body connection that we have. The thing they've been studying is compassion and what it triggers physically in you when you think and act compassionately. For example, they've done studies that actually show that it reduces your levels of cellular inflammation. It reduces your heart rate and your blood pressure. It releases oxytocin, which is considered to be the love hormone; it's a feel-good hormone. It's released during things like breastfeeding, sex, those kinds of things. Even just the simple act of touching can result in some oxytocin being released into your brain. It strengthens our immune system. It does so much. It helps us recover from disease faster. It can even help you live longer. It has huge benefits, and it is contagious. When you interact with someone and you are compassionate to them, they will tend to be more compassionate to other people. All of this has done studies at the universities that I mentioned, as well as elsewhere.

DG: Sounds like something we should bottle, doesn't it?

VS: Yeah, it's amazing.

DG: When you talk about compassion, it's not just from the caregiver to patients but from caregivers to themselves ― in other words self-compassion. I know you'd like to talk about this a little bit. Why is it so important, and how does that impact quality of care?

VS: Well, in the industry of most of your listeners, I think you're probably already pretty compassionate or you wouldn't be in that industry. I mean, you care about other people, you want to take care of them, but lots of times in that industry you tend to not focus as much on yourself. You feel it's selfish or you're more other-focused. What they've discovered is that that leads to what they call burnout or compassion fatigue. You're always giving, giving, giving and not getting anything back.

The idea of self-compassion is to show to yourself the same compassion that you would show to someone that you're caring for. There's a lot of study in this field as well, and they've ― if you want to get into more of it, there's what they consider to be three elements of self-compassion. Essentially, it's showing kindness and compassion to yourself, the same way that you would to someone that you're caring for.

DG: What are those three elements?

VS: Basically, the first is the kindness and compassion. The second is you have to really see this in terms of a greater humanity. Sometimes when we become burned out or upset about something, we're browbeating ourselves or regretting things, you can get caught up in this negative talk. Putting it in the perspective of a lot people are suffering, a lot of people are going through this, helps you become less self-focused and get a little bit more perspective on it.

The third part is mindfulness, being mindful of how you feel at a particular time. It helps you process those emotions and deal with them, and being present is a part of the whole compassion ― in terms of just generally in life ― but being more mindful of yourself and how you feel helps you process that and leads to less negativity.

DG: I find that interesting because mindfulness is such a big buzzword today, and I never thought of it in terms of compassion.

VS: Right, yes, I know it is. It is a big buzzword, and it can kind of get overused. You get a little tired hearing about it and you're like, ugh, gosh, another mindful talk. The way it's used in here is it's about just accepting pleasure and pain as it arises. If you start to feel yourself becoming self-critical or self-judgmental, you bring that to the surface, you acknowledge it, then you're kind to yourself. You can forgive yourself. That helps you process it and not be stuck in that vicious cycle that we can all get stuck in of self-criticism/self-judgment. That's the way the mindfulness piece works in terms of self-compassion.

DG: Got it. Virginia, as I'm sure that you know from caring for your late husband who suffered from ALS, there's a great risk of burnout among caregivers. You already referred to that. No doubt this contributes to the long-term care industry's high turnover rate. How do you work with professional caregivers, in any industry but in particular the long-term care industry, to alleviate job burnout? Is this burnout the same as what you just referred to as compassion fatigue? Why is it, or is it different?

VS: No, burnout and compassion fatigue, the social scientists consider to be pretty much the same thing. They call it also secondary stress. How do you deal with that? I mean, it's nice if you can get to an organizational level because there's often things organizations can do to help people who work in this industry. On an individual level, it's learning to practice self-compassion.

There are scientifically proven exercises, some of them fairly simple, that you can start to do on a daily basis, when you're feeling some stress coming on or a lot of self-criticism or self-judgment, it can help alleviate that. Again, they're scientifically proven to help develop self-compassion. They're finding that when you are self-compassionate, you are experiencing those health benefits that I talked about earlier and that you're also helping your patients, your people that you're caring for, to achieve some of those health benefits as well.

Like I said, it is contagious, so it not only helps the caregiver but it helps the person you're caring for, and there are ways that you can develop it and break that cycle of self-criticism/self-judgment ― just kind of running ’til you drop ― stopping that and being kind to yourself.

DG: You mentioned simple exercises. Could you give me an example of one? Is it something as simple as thinking reaffirming thoughts?

VS: Some of them are simple as ― it can be just taking a self-compassion break, a 5-minute break, and thinking where you are right now. These are written out on the handout ― I don't happen to have it right in front of me ― that I have. Basically, the first part would be labeling your emotions, what's going on with you right now, and try to tune into how you're responding to that. Are you judging yourself? Are you criticizing yourself? And turning that into being kind to yourself. It's kind of a self-compassion break.

You can make it as long as you want, but it's going through those steps that we talked about: recognizing how you feel, being kind about it, stopping the negative talk, realizing that this too shall pass. A lot of different people go through difficult times, or even on a daily basis ― and then just being more mindful of what's going on around you, so that you can deal with it a little bit better.

DG: I like the idea of even just that 5-minute break. Is that something that employers should take note of and maybe build that into the daily schedule?

VS: I think that would be great, just giving people time to reflect on what they've been through in a day and acknowledge their feelings I think is huge. I mean, my mom has been in skilled communities and as a lawyer I still practice with seniors, so I see a lot of this firsthand. The way healthcare providers rarely ― this is my opinion ― are overworked and they don't have time to reflect on it. It would be nice if they would be allowed to spend a little bit more time with the people they're caring for. I think that connection that they build helps nurture the caregiver as well.

I think also allowing them time to stop and take a breath, and process what's going on with them, and doing that mindful ― the self-compassion practice or exercise ― would be great. You can do them in as little as 5 minutes. You'll hear meditation attached to self-compassion and compassion a lot, too because it's actually been shown to change the chemistry of your brain. A lot of these little practices are kind of something similar to a little meditation, which I think also can have perhaps not the best connotation these days, but it is just basically quieting your brain and processing all of this and turning it into being kind to yourself.

DG: Well, meditation and mindfulness kind of go hand in hand. They're gaining ground in many circles, so hopefully maybe it'll be more accepted. I know you tie in compassion to success. How do you do that, and how does that ultimately tie in to the bottom line?

VS: It's a broad subject, but if you talk about ― I think maybe for this talk it'd be the best thing maybe to focus on leadership. As a leader, you want to be powerful. You want to lead people, and that includes some type of power, and power can be used or misused. Power is given to you by other people. How you elicit the feelings in people of caring for them, they're finding it's going to help you have much more power than what we think of the authoritarian or military type of side: Do this, get this done.

The idea that you would practice in caring for them ― and of course there's limits on everything ― but caring for them, noticing there's something going on in a day that may be upsetting them, those kinds of things actually lead to being a better leader. Of course, if you honor people like that, your employees, then they're going to be better to the customers. This whole cycle of compassion is going to help people have a better experience with your company, which obviously can improve your bottom line.

DG: Right ― and lead to retention, which is an issue in this industry.

VS: Right. The current thinking is that you have to be self-focused to succeed, and that's by these universities being disproven, that it actually hurts more than it helps, and that being other-focused is really what helps you succeed personally, professionally. Creating a culture of being other-focused can help the business be more successful. There's lots of studies on that that I know we don't have time to go into, but that's what they've discovered.

DG: Great. Thank you so much, Virginia, for shedding light on this topic. It's a topic that's very relevant to long-term care. To our listeners, thank you for tuning in. For more information on compassion development programs, visit VirginiaHunterSampson.com. If you'd like to learn more about SmartLinx Solutions and our fully integrated suite of workforce management solutions, visit us online at SmartLinxSolutions.com.

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