The Impact of an Emotionally Demanding Job Role

Every now and then in my role as a psychotherapist, a client will comment with something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how you can listen to people’s problems all day’, or ‘do you ever take your work home with you?’

Perhaps you have had similar comments if you work in an emotionally demanding job role? I could imagine people expressing a similar sentiment towards nurses, teachers, carers, social workers, police officers or any job role involving heavy emotional demands on top of practical demands and more routine day to day tasks of the job.

The truth for me is that sometimes it can be difficult to listen to people in distress all day. When you step back and think about it, it isn’t really a ‘normal’ thing to do with your time!

Nor is it really a ‘normal’ thing to see physical injury and pain all day if you are a nurse working in A&E, or to deal with challenging behaviour all day if you are a police officer or deal with high risk situations all the time if you are a social worker.

The kind of situations you are exposed to on a regular basis when you are in an emotionally demanding role are not common experiences for the majority of people outside your particular profession.

But when emotional demands are a part of your ordinary day to day experience, it can be easy to forget that it isn’t really the norm.

 

A biased view

I remember early on in my career when I was a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with a heavy caseload of people with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I went out one evening to a comedy gig and I was struck by the thought, ‘Wow! Look at all these people who don’t mind crowds!’

It would be easy for me to conclude from my experience at work that everyone has a mental health difficulty and is struggling with anxiety or low mood. Indeed, many people are, but not everyone is!

I can imagine it would be easy to think of most people as being dishonest if you work in the police force, or over-estimating the likelihood of accidents, illness and injuries if you work in healthcare, or any number of other biases we could form, simply through being exposed to similar issues most of the time.

Of course, we can challenge our biases if we recognise them, by taking notice of people, situations or experiences that offer a different perspective. The key thing is recognising your biases in the first place.

 

Losing compassion?

A friend recently told me of an experience with a healthcare professional who made a rather blunt and uncompassionate comment about the prognosis of her health problem. This was a number of years ago and the professional has no doubt forgotten ever having made the comment but it was something that caused a great deal of fear for my friend for many years.

Of course, we are all human and we will all make offhand comments from time to time. Perhaps this professional was simply having a bad day. However, when you encounter the same problem hundreds of times at work, it can be easy to forget that it is perhaps the first time for the person with the problem.

For the clients who come to see me in my role as a psychotherapist, I actively remind myself that their appointments are a really big deal! Particularly at their first appointment; they may have been nervous about it for days.

Of course, you don’t need to have experienced something in order to empathise with it, but I believe that experiencing therapy as the client has been a helpful reminder for me to be more aware of what it is like in the other chair.

The importance of compassion and empathy is not lost on the vast majority of people working in an emotionally demanding role. I would like to hope that for most of us, we do show compassion, most of the time.

But what if we feel like we can’t? What about when the emotional demands become overwhelming or exhausting? If you are finding it increasingly difficult to empathise in your job role, it may be a sign of compassion fatigue.

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Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a term used to describe the negative emotional cost of caring for others – something synonymous with emotionally demanding job roles. Compassion fatigue may look like stress, emotional exhaustion or burnout but it can also include symptoms of secondary trauma.

You can find more information about compassion fatigue from the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project here: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/index.html

And a great blog about preventing compassion fatigue from Good Therapy here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-cost-of-caring-10-ways-to-prevent-compassion-fatigue-0209167

 

How to reduce the impact of an emotionally demanding role

In my view, one of the key things for us if we are in an emotionally demanding role is to be in touch with our own emotions. If we are avoiding our emotions, numbing out or unable to recognise how we feel it will be more difficult to manage our own emotions in a helpful way.

Self-care is also key. Spending time building our emotional resources, engaging in enjoyable activity, taking breaks, using relaxation and connecting with others is important to maintain your wellbeing when the emotional demands on you are high.

Use grounding techniques throughout the day while you are at work. Grounding is a simple and effective way of re-connecting with the present moment and it doesn’t need to take a lot of time to do, so it can be easy to fit in even on a busy working day.

Allow others to care for you. When you are in a helping role, you can often get used to putting other people’s needs before your own. Maybe you see yourself as the helper and find it difficult to accept help from others? I know this was true for me and it took me a long time to accept that I sometimes need a bit of help too. It may sound silly, but by asking for help I learned that help… actually helps! We are all human and it is OK to seek out help and support. Even if you are usually the helper.

Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion isn’t simply about letting yourself off the hook. It is about developing an attitude of kindness, wisdom and forgiveness towards yourself. It is about acknowledging that you are human, recognising your needs and developing an attitude of acceptance towards yourself. If you are not used to showing yourself compassion, this can take time and regular practice. You can find some helpful resources to get you started here: https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Compassion

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If your workplace involves a high level of emotional demands, you can find out about wellbeing workshops in the Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees areas here:

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How To Not Enjoy Your Achievements

So, you just achieved something you wanted to achieve and you feel happy about it, right?

No?

Then you are probably following these 4 simple steps that will prevent you from enjoying your achievements…

 

Step 1: Focus on the negative

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If you got 99% in that exam, focus your attention entirely on the 1% you didn’t get.

 

Step 2: Ignore the positives

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Be sure to attribute your success to anyone or anything other than yourself. You could blame your success on the fact that it was too easy, that anyone could have done it, or frame it in a way that it wasn’t really your effort but someone else’s that made it a success.

 

Step 3: Move your goalposts

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This is a way of acknowledging you succeeded in your goal but still maintaining the idea that it wasn’t good enough.
If you ran 5K, move your goalposts immediately to 10K and focus on how you haven’t achieved that.

 

Step 4: Compare yourself

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The crucial element of this is to compare yourself against people who you think have achieved more and to forget all of the context surrounding their success.

Never mind that they have been doing it for longer than you or had more help than you or any advantages they may have had. It is also important here to focus on only the positives of their success and ignore any negatives.

Alternatively, you could compare yourself against a time you think you did better than you have now, but again, remembering to ignore the context.

 

If you are currently enjoying your achievements and want to join the many perfectionists who aren’t, just follow these 4 straightforward steps and you will be miserable in your achievements in no time!

 

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Emotions About Emotions

I always remember learning about the concept of meta-emotions (emotions about emotions) at university and the lecturer making the point that we seem to be the only creatures that do this!

Lions don’t feel guilty about feeling happy when they caught the gazelle.

Dogs don’t feel ashamed of feeling over-excited on their last walk.

Fish don’t feel embarrassed about feeling anxious whenever they hear the song Baby Shark!

Actually, I’m not sure what the emotional experience of a fish is, but you get the point.

 

Adding to our emotions

I don’t know if it is technically correct that other creatures don’t have meta-emotions but it does raise an interesting point about what we humans do with our emotions.

Rather than allowing emotions to be there and to pass by, sometimes we will add an emotion in response to the first emotion.

Have you ever felt guilty for feeling happy?

Have you ever felt ashamed of feeling angry?

Have you ever felt sad about feeling sad or anxious about feeling anxious?

 

Judging our emotions

It seems to me that when we experience meta-emotions they usually come heavily laden with negative judgement. We are judging the primary emotion as being wrong, inappropriate or harmful in some way or judging ourselves negatively for having the emotion at all.

The difficulty is that when we judge our emotions and ourselves in this way, we are usually inviting in a whole load more negative emotion than if we had allowed ourselves to just feel as we felt.

 

The alternative?

The good news is that there is one meta-emotion that can end this cycle of negative emotions about emotions! And that emotion is…

Compassion!

If we learn to be compassionate towards our emotions rather than judging them harshly, trying to avoid them or suppressing certain emotions because we think we shouldn’t feel that way, maybe we would feel a whole lot better!

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Two simple questions you can ask yourself if you think you are judging your emotions or yourself too harshly are:

  1. What would I say to a friend in this situation?
  2. What would a compassionate person say to me in this situation?

 

Maybe then we can learn to feel compassionate about feeling angry, kind about feeling sad and understanding about feeling anxious.

If you have been spotting and naming your emotions since reading How Are You? maybe you can level-up and start spotting your meta-emotions!

 

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We think mainly in opinions

When you opened the curtains this morning did you think:

‘It’s a lovely day!’ or ‘it’s a miserable day’?

Or did you think:

‘The sun is shining and the sky is blue’ or ‘it is raining and the sky is grey’?

I’m guessing it was something more along the lines of the former than the latter.

 

As we go through our day, most of what we think probably feels factual.

On the whole, people treat most of their thoughts as though they are facts most of the time. Often this isn’t really a problem. After all, life would be pretty dull if we didn’t have opinions and preferences.

 

Sometimes though, it can be useful to check in with your thoughts and notice that many of them are actually opinions rather than facts.

 

Why?

Our thoughts impact on how we feel emotionally, and on how we behave. If you have a negative thought and treat it as though it is a fact, it is likely you will feel an emotion that matches up with that thought and then behave accordingly.

Imaging how you would feel if you had the following thoughts and believed them to be 100% true facts:

‘I’m not good enough’

‘Everyone is laughing at me’

‘I’m socially awkward’

‘I am a disappointment’

‘My work is rubbish’

‘I’m a bad parent’

Then imagine how you would behave if you believed these thoughts to be true.

In actual fact, all of the above statements are opinions. Someone else could take a completely different view and at a different point in time, so could you.

 

Thought experiment…

To get an idea of how many of our thoughts are opinions rather than facts, take a look at the picture below and list all the thoughts that automatically come into your mind about the picture.

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How many adjectives did you use?

How many judgements (positive or negative)?

How many statements of fact did you make?

 

When is a fact not a fact?

For the little experiment above, it was probably pretty clear which thoughts were factual and which were opinions. It can be a little more tricky when we encounter social facts.

Take the example of someone who just won 3m on the lottery.

Most people would think ‘they’re rich!’ and think of that as a fact.

However, those on the Forbes rich list would probably disagree.

 

When it is an opinion, there is an alternative…

To return to our negative thoughts, if we can identify these as opinions rather than facts, this means that there is an alternative. Maybe there is a more helpful alternative.

Sometimes, just acknowledging the thought is not a fact can be enough to change the emotion we feel and what we do as a result.

It also gives us a bit of distance from our thoughts and for those of you who like mindfulness, this is similar to taking an observer perspective as you would in mindfulness practice.

What’s more, re-stating something in a factual way can sometimes help you to gain a more balanced perspective.

Please feel free to leave your opinions in the comments!

You may also like: Stress: Is It All In Your Head?

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It Isn’t All Bad

Blue Monday is just around the corner and is said to be the most depressing day of the year. But maybe it isn’t all bad?

I’m guessing the immediate reaction for some of you will be along the lines of ‘it bloody well is’!

Certainly, if you happen to be going through a difficult time in your life then it is likely to feel that way. Even if you are not going through a major life event you may still feel like this from time to time.

It is very easy to get bogged down in the day to day hassles that life presents us with.

When someone simply tells you to look on the bright side or some similar well-meant but largely unhelpful platitude, my guess is that you internally tell them where to stick their bright side.

That said, there is something about the way our attention works that could prevent us from seeing a bright side if we think that everything is going wrong or if we are feeling bogged down.

 

Focus of attention

Our focus of attention is not an objective thing; it is subject to numerous biases and we tend to filter out some information while paying particular attention to other information.

This is a very necessary way for us to operate because if we took in all of the available information to the same level, we would struggle to process it all or to get anything done!

Our brains, sometimes helpfully but at other times less helpfully, tend to take short-cuts.

I will talk about 3 short-cuts in particular that work together to maintain the belief that everything is awful.

  1. We pay particular attention to the things that support what we already believe and these things are generalised and magnified.
  2. We largely ignore information that contradicts what we already believe.
  3. We distort neutral information to fit in with what we already believe.

 

To flesh this out a bit, let’s imagine person A has the belief that everything is going wrong and person B has a belief that things are going pretty well.

Now let’s say that the same 3 events happen to person A and to person B.

  1. They each go for a job interview and don’t get the job.
  2. They each get positive feedback from the interview despite not getting it.
  3. They each get stuck in traffic on their way home that night.

Person A will definitely turn their full attention to the fact that they didn’t get the job but it is unlikely to stop there.

If they have a belief that everything is going wrong they are likely to be thinking:

‘I knew it’, ‘I never get the jobs I really want’, ‘I’m always really bad at interviews’, ‘I’ll never be able to get a promotion’, ‘nothing ever works out in my favour’, ‘what’s the point in even trying’.

It becomes about more than just this one job interview. It becomes about every job interview they have been unsuccessful in and it about every job interview they will go to in the future.

It may also be generalised to other unrelated events that are not going well – maybe the boiler broke last week or their car needs to go into the garage – it all becomes lumped together and gives more weight to the belief that everything is going wrong.

So later, when they receive feedback that they did very well in the interview and that it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, person A doesn’t really acknowledge the positive feedback. It is simply discounted.
Later still when person A gets stuck in traffic (which I am classing here as something fairly neutral) they are likely to give that their full attention and interpret it as being terrible because it fits with the way they already think and feel.

Maybe it goes something like:

‘Oh, this is all I need after such a bad day’, ‘what else can possibly go wrong’, ‘I hate being stuck in traffic’, ‘now I’ll miss out on time this evening’.

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Person A still holds the belief that everything is going wrong and probably feels pretty de-moralised.

 

A different focus

On the other hand, person B is less likely to focus as much attention on the fact that they didn’t get the job. They may feel disappointed but if they already believe that things are going well they are more likely to dismiss it:

‘It is disappointing but there will be plenty more opportunities out there’, ‘It wasn’t the right kind of job for me anyway’, ‘it was good experience to go to the interview’, ‘I’ll do better next time’.
Later, when they receive positive feedback and are told it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, they will give that positive feedback their full attention and they are likely to generalise and magnify it.

‘That was nice feedback’, ‘I am pretty good at interviews’, ‘They seemed impressed with me, I’m sure I’ll get the next one’.

Then, when person B gets stuck in traffic they may think:

‘I don’t mind having a bit of time for my brain to unwind before I get home’, ‘I can listen to that podcast I have been wanting to listen to’, ‘I’m not in any rush anyway’.

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Person B still holds the belief that things are going pretty well.

Neither way of looking at these events is right or wrong. They are both biased. But person B is going to experience far less negative emotion than person A.

 

Changing Focus

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So, if you wanted to challenge the belief that everything is going wrong, it is going to take a change of focus.

Not so much looking on the bright side, but purposefully seeking to alter the attentional biases at work.

Step 1: State only the fact, rather than generalising and magnifying.

Step 2: Acknowledge the positives, rather than discounting them.

Step 3: Ask yourself if there is a different way of seeing the same situation. How would you view it if you felt better? How would someone else view this situation?

Have a not so bad day!

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