Skip to main content
The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp

We believe that compassion is mandatory in the building of a Culture First organization. If like us, you’re passionate about people, there’s a good chance you also have high levels of compassion. However, compassion does come with a risk of secondary trauma exposure, or “compassion fatigue”.

Damon speaks with Taryn Hughes to learn what causes compassion fatigue, how it differs from regular burnout, and how organizations can mitigate it.

We then get on the ground with Leah Hirsch, Director of Professional Development at Math for America, and hear about how she’s implemented Taryn’s program “Compassion Fatigue for Career Satisfaction” to address teachers’ compassion fatigue at Math for America.

Finally, Damon chats with Mai Ton, Founder of EMP HR Consulting, to understand how we can reconcile the fact that an organization has an infinite need to provide care and support for their people, but only a finite capacity to do so.

Episode transcript

DAMON KLOTZ: Hi everyone. It’s Damon Klotz, host of the Culture First podcast. This is part two of our series where we looked at empathy and compassion in the workplace. On this episode, we are going to be discussing concepts like compassion fatigue, wellbeing, burnout, and trauma exposure. In my opinion, these are topics that are not covered enough when we talk about work culture or the future of work. Some of these concepts might bring up questions or be triggering for listeners. To ensure that you have access to resources based on today’s episode, we partnered with Forest Hughes & Associates to create a guide on secondary trauma exposure at work, its impact and mitigation techniques. To get this guide, head to the website for today’s episode, which is All right, let’s get started.

DAMON KLOTZ: I’m Damon Klotz and this is Culture First. Welcome back to another episode of the Culture First podcast. If you’ve been listening since the start of the season, you’d know that my aim for this podcast is to share stories with you to create a better world of work. We’ve covered topics like relational intelligence, building culture in remote organizations, community building, scaling company culture, how to design processes that maximize the flow of communication, and that’s just what we spoke about in the first three episodes. What you probably won’t ever hear me do on this show is rank my favorite episodes. But, I will admit that it was always going to be hard to follow up an episode where Simon Sinek was the main guest. I can say though, that this three part series on the soft, or should I say human skills that we all need to put culture first, has been incredibly fascinating for me as a host and hopefully, for you as a listener. This episode is the final part of that series. Claude Silver helped us frame the idea of soft skills being not soft, but critical human skills. Michael Ventura shared stories about empathy and specifically the application of it, which leads us to this episode, where I’m focusing on the idea of compassion, burnout and how we deal with trauma exposure in the workplace. This is a conversation that I really believe we need to be having right now.

DAMON KLOTZ: My first guest is Taryn Hughes. Taryn is an expert in a concept called compassion fatigue, which is also known as secondary traumatic stress. Also on today’s episode, we’re going to be hearing from Leah Hirsch. Leah is the director of professional development at Math for America and is actively helping teachers combat compassion fatigue. Finally, I sat down with a lady named Mai Ton. Mai has over 20 years of experience as a people leader and we shared stories about the cost of caring deeply about your employee’s experience and what’s on the other side of burnout. This is a really moving episode and I know that the stories here will help us create a better world of work. So, let’s get started. Today, I’m joining conversation with Taryn Hughes. Taryn is the founding CEO of Forest Hughes & Associates, and the creator of the Compassion Fatigue RESET program. There’s some terms that you’ve used in your work, and I’m sure we’ll cover a lot more, that I wanted to maybe just get some definitions on first, so emotional exhaustion.

TARYN HUGHES: Emotional exhaustion. Yes. Everybody has a different experience. I think there’s no concrete definition for emotional exhaustion, but I feel like the best description is when you’re just so emotionally exhausted that you feel it deep in your bones and you just can’t move forward. It’s like you hit a wall.

DAMON KLOTZ: Secondary traumatic stress.

TARYN HUGHES: Yes. Secondary traumatic stress is really just, that is the synonym for compassion fatigue. They’re one and the same. Compassion fatigue is the really friendly way of describing secondary traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress comes from vicariously seeing or experiencing trauma through another person. It’s … You’re one step removed. You’re not directly impacted. The accident or loss is not happening to you, but you’re hearing stories from people. You’re seeing the facts of suffering, you’re seeing them go hungry, you’re seeing them struggle with getting their basic needs met, and then you, as a witness and listener, actually feel the impact of the suffering that they’re living through.

DAMON KLOTZ: And then somatic trauma recovery.

TARYN HUGHES: Yes, somatic trauma recovery. Somatic is really referring to the body and we now know from so much research that trauma lands and hits and is stored in the body. You have a physical reaction when you go through suffering, either directly or indirectly. And it’s stored in our body and in our nervous system. When we look to recover from traumatic exposure, it’s really important and necessary to incorporate the body in that healing path.

DAMON KLOTZ: I wanted to talk about the concept of compassion fatigue. For someone who’s hearing this for the first time, how would you describe it to them?

TARYN HUGHES: Compassion fatigue. There’s a great quote by Charles Figley and he refers to it as the cost of caring. It’s really a human experience and it’s something that I think happens to all of us, whether we’re working in a professional sector, in a role that exposes us to suffering, or whether we’re dealing with it in our private lives, and it’s that sense that if we’re in a relationship with somebody and they’re going through something, that we’re going to be impacted on some level. Over time, this exposure can really take a greater impact on the person that’s witnessing that and being a support for others. If you live through it once or twice and you’re supporting someone for a short amount of time, it’s probably not going to impact you greatly or enough that you’d recognize, but if you’re doing it on a regular basis, it’s going to affect you.

DAMON KLOTZ: What are some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue that we can actually be looking for in the workplace?

TARYN HUGHES: Sure. If you’re a leader or a manager, one of the things is you need to look at who that person is as a core. What’s the core of that person’s personality? Who are they? Where are they starting from? How did they enter the workplace? Were they coming in really motivated, on time, organized and has that changed? Because the symptoms are markedly important when it changes from who they have always been and who they were prior to the exposure versus who they are afterwards. They tend to isolate and withdrawal from colleagues and they’ll also struggle with effective problem solving and that’s because blinders go up and it makes it hard to see resolutions to problems.

DAMON KLOTZ: Would an example of that be, maybe I’ve got a colleague who has to do this task on a weekly basis. The task never seemed to have been an issue, but then more recently, I’m finding them quite stressed when doing this or maybe not doing it as well and then something’s actually changed in their ability to do something that used to be a relatively straightforward part of their work.

TARYN HUGHES: Yes, definitely. That would be a red flag and as a leader or manager, I would get curious and I would want to know if there’s something going on with them personally and if you know that they’ve been working on a project that has a high level of trauma exposure or they’ve been helping a colleague through something, I would note that.

DAMON KLOTZ: Is compassion fatigue different from burnout?

TARYN HUGHES: Yes. It’s tricky, because oftentimes they look the same and some of the symptoms are the same. There are very distinct root causes that are different. If we think about burnout, oftentimes it has to do with the quantity of work, the pace of work, sometimes aspects in the environment, and they’re burning out because of those reasons. If you look at compassion fatigue, it’s different, because compassion fatigue really has to do with what that person is exposed to witnessing, hearing, seeing, and what their role is. While the symptoms are the same, the solutions are also very different. I’ll give you an example, if someone is suffering from burnout, what are some of the things that we would usually do for them? We would suggest a break, going on vacation, making sure that you step away from work, there’s all different solutions that are commonplace knowledge now.

TARYN HUGHES: Compassion fatigue, you can take a break from it, but that’s not going to fix the problem. A lot of times, organizations are bringing in wellness initiatives, they’re advocating for self-care. If you look at it through the trauma informed lens and you realize it’s having to do with trauma exposure, the trauma hits the body and the nervous system, there’s a shock that goes through, isolation is common. One of the things that you want to do is you want to advocate for connection and you want to put in some very intentional dialogue around how what they’re being exposed to at work is impacting them personally. And then you build another prevention and measures and recovery solutions.

DAMON KLOTZ: I spoke to Simon Sinek about the difference between organizations playing a finite or an infinite game. A finite is where the players are known, the rules are fixed, the end points are clear versus playing an infinite game like in business or politics where the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there’s no real defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game. There’s only being ahead and behind. When I feel like thinking about society, we have an infinite need to provide care for others, but only a finite capacity to actually give it. Do you think that’s a fair statement?

TARYN HUGHES: Yes, definitely and it’s a root principal in my work, and what I try to get people to understand is that they have one body, they have one heart, they have one mind. They have a finite capacity, and so they have to understand that they can’t help and heal the whole entire world. You have to start with where you’re at and in order for you to sustain the good work that you’re doing, usually these people are on a strong mission and they want to keep doing what they’re doing, they need to really, really concretely understand that they have a finite capacity, and at the same time be working towards the infinite game in a moral sense. Morally, you want to show up and ethically you want to show up present, you want to show up fully with your whole self, and you want to show up for a larger purpose. It’s complex and I think all the pieces are needed in the equation.

DAMON KLOTZ: How can a manager utilize compassion to better their team culture while still being mindful of avoiding compassion fatigue, or is it something that actually needs to be addressed more at an organizational level?

TARYN HUGHES: Sure, that’s a great question. Some of the organizational solutions that managers and leaders can first implement for themselves and then implement for their team is emphasizing connection, building in some procedures and protocols that serve as protection and preventative measures for the team. I wouldn’t think about it through the lens of withholding or reserving your compassion, or coming in, being afraid that your compassion might run out, definitely don’t enter the workplace in that way. Enter it fully, and then put in some parameters so that you buffer your employees and yourself from the impact of exposure, and that you minimize the level of impact, and then that you have some support mechanisms for solutions if people and even the leaders and managers experience compassion fatigue, get support and get programs. There are recovery programs out there and their support and there’s people that specialize in this.

DAMON KLOTZ: Would one of the suggestions for a manager also be to just even introduce this language into the team and say that like creating some symbolism and some language around that we’re willing to have this conversation?

TARYN HUGHES: Yeah. It’s … I think how it’s introduced would be really important and what’s the purpose for introducing it? When we work with organizations, I am very specific about when we enter this conversation and for what purpose. It’s very, very useful for the leader and the manager to be highly educated on the subject, because you don’t always have to speak about it in order to address it as a leader and manager. That’s one of the advantages. You don’t have to walk up to a colleague and say, “Oh, I think you might be experiencing compassion fatigue. Do you want to talk about it?” That could go over well, depending on your relationship, but I would say a more effective way is if the leader or manager knows and understands. They understand when someone’s having symptoms, they understand when they’re in a position with high exposure, they set up a period of debrief after high exposure to sit down with a person and ask questions. How did this impact you? What was it like for you to see this? How are you doing with this? Those are really, really solid preventative measures that leaders and managers can activate right now.

DAMON KLOTZ: And it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to walk up one of your team members and say, “I feel like you’re suffering from compassion fatigue?” Rather, it’s asking questions that allows them to actually talk about the experience that they’re having and allow them to actually go through that and answer it for themselves first rather than say to someone, “Looks like you’re suffering from this.”

TARYN HUGHES: Yes, definitely. And I’ll tell you a story about why I also made the decision for my own work. Usually when I get initial phone calls from organizations and leaders, they want to know about compassion fatigue and they’re really excited for us to come in and educate their team. And what I found is it hurts people to talk about this, and when I walk in the room and I say, “This is what compassion fatigue is. Here’s some of the symptoms. Here’s some of the ways that you are being exposed in your work,” and the look of shock on people’s faces, it broke my heart. And so I actually started turning down invitations for that, and I only talk about it directly if I’m being pulled in on a larger contract. If they’re willing to invest in recovery and prevention strategies, full on. If I have that group for 10 weeks, we’ll talk about it, but I’m going to talk about it in a very sensitive, contained way, and then I’m going to be able to say to them, “Don’t lose hope. This is what we can do. This is what we’re starting next week. These are the steps you can take and this is what you can do today.” Because if you don’t couple it with the solutions and the possibility for recovery and hope and resiliency, you’re going to drop people down into a really psychologically unsafe space.

DAMON KLOTZ: There’s nothing worse than feeling like your voice was heard temporarily and then knowing that nothing will change. And the same way, you can’t introduce a concept like this without a system of support and structure around that to actually improve it, otherwise it’s just knowledge that this exists with no actual skills or understanding about how to do something with it.

TARYN HUGHES: Yes, exactly. And the great place to start is with the management and the leadership, because again, they don’t have to speak about it. They can already live it. They can embody it, they can get resources, they can activate resources for themselves, and it’s a very smaller ask for an organization to get a leader trained and for them to learn how to manage and lead teams exposed to trauma than it is to do a full staff rollout.

DAMON KLOTZ: What advice would you have for someone who can easily show compassion for their colleagues, for their team, for the organization, for the customers, but are ultimately lacking in compassion for themselves?

TARYN HUGHES: Oh, that’s a great question. It’s … I see this so much, and this is one of the things that I found from doing the work on the ground, across sectors. That is one of the key components to starting to help the person recover, is you bring the focus back on them and you start to infuse the idea that their life is just as valuable as their clients, as their coworkers, as their managers, as their spouse, as the person that’s sick, as their child. It’s a fundamental shift in their deep belief system and …

TARYN HUGHES: It’s a fundamental shift in their deep belief system and it’s a way where they almost become invisible in the equation and the focus is really on the outer. So we need to take the focus to the inner and to the focus to them as individuals.

DAMON KLOTZ: Would a really simple analogy be that you should be putting on the mask on the plane first before trying to help others and is there maybe a lack of understanding that you don’t even have the oxygen to actually support yourself. Then that’s probably why you also can’t be supporting others during that moment.

TARYN HUGHES: Yes, I like the mask. I think it’s putting your oxygen mask on first. The challenge is when it’s due to trauma exposure, the challenge is that from a perspective, when you look through the nervous system, we can’t always put our own mask on first. That’s where it’s tricky with compassion fatigue and trauma exposure because you actually need the support system to help you put the mask on. That’s the primary difference.

DAMON KLOTZ: Next I spoke to Leah Hirsch from Math for America.

LEAH HIRSCH: My name is Leah Hirsch. I’m the director of professional development at Math for America.

DAMON KLOTZ: Math for America has created these four year fellowships for accomplished public school mathematics and science teachers who are making a lasting impact in their schools, their communities, and the profession at large. What I found fascinating about my conversation with Leah is about the real difference between burnout and compassion fatigue and what she’s doing to help teachers combat it.

LEAH HIRSCH: I mean, I actually learned recently what this term was. We’ve called it burnout in the teaching world for a lot of years, but I think that compassion fatigue kind of gets at it a lot more specifically, but it’s that specific type of burnout that happens when one is in a care taking role and for teachers, not only are they care taking, but they’re often care taking in a system that’s not just or equitable. They have algebra, but they also are expected to build relationships with 150 students every day. And these young kids have complex and they’re dealing with trauma when they come in. Being a teenager is hard just first of all. So these teachers are just supporting teenagers going through that big life transition.

LEAH HIRSCH: But then in New York City, we have teenagers who are living in poverty and teenagers who they’re in homes that have incarcerated family members and they have fears around their immigration status and they’re questioning their sexual identity and they might be homeless. So the students in New York City represent that whole swath of human experience and our teachers are expected to support them and meet them where they’re at and nurture them and get them to be critical thinkers and collaborators and really good members of this democracy and also pass all of their high stakes tests. So it’s a lot of pressure on a teacher. So I think of the compassion fatigue that teachers experience as being really compounded and complex by all of those variables.

DAMON KLOTZ: After hearing Leah’s story, it’s easy to understand why a teacher in any country around the world could potentially suffer from compassion fatigue. Our years at school are such a formative experience and can have a really big impact on the future decisions that we go on to make. Knowing all of this, I asked Leah how is she helping teachers combat compassion fatigue?

LEAH HIRSCH: Yeah, I think that the first thing is to just in your relationships with people to encourage acts of self-care. I think a lot of teachers don’t have tools of self-care. They’re up before the sunrise in their home after the sun goes down and they come home with a backpack full of papers to grade and lessons to plan and just the work never ends. So I know from my own experience teaching that finding moments to take care of myself were really, really challenging. So I think that’s a really good first step.

LEAH HIRSCH: But then the second piece is creating spaces where people can talk to one another. And I would suggest those spaces should be mediated in some way, perhaps by an expert or an anchoring text. For example, there’s a group of teachers right now in our program that are meeting monthly. They have a book club of sorts and they’re using a book called Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators and that’s written by Elena Aguilar. She’s an education coach out of California who’s really respected in our community and so they don’t have an expert in the room, but they have this anchoring text that kind of is walking them through the process of having these conversations with one another.

DAMON KLOTZ: I think that’s an incredible example of even if you don’t have access to the training budget to maybe bring in a facilitator, there’s still a role that you can play in terms of creating a container and a space for someone to come together. And whether it’s a book that could be rented from the public library or something that you make available to people. But just the first one is actually being there and caring for people who care for others and creating that space. It’s a lovely story. I’d love to know if there’s a particular success story from this work that you’ve done for Math for America that really stands out that you’d like to share with the audience.

LEAH HIRSCH: Yeah, I mean I think the success story for me is always in reading the feedback that teachers write about these courses where they kind of relay their personal experiences and they write about what impact the course had on them. So if I may, I’m just going to read you one of the comments from one of the teachers after taking the compassion fatigue course. They wrote, “Teaching is hard and can be depleting if you don’t have structures to protect your energy. This course was so valuable as I did not feel alone or isolated with my feelings. There was space given to share and we were given concrete strategies to support ourselves.” And I think that one piece of feedback about what they wrote about this course to me kind of embodies all of the things that teachers have been saying in each of these courses that they take where they get to work on this. So I’m really proud of the fact that we can offer these workshops for teachers and they can kind of create community and get stronger together.

DAMON KLOTZ: While this episode does focus on how to combat compassion fatigue, it’s important to note that even in the industries where it might be more common, it doesn’t mean that everyone is suffering from it. During my research on this subject, I came across several industries where this is becoming more common from customer support workers who are working online chat, lawyers, as well as social media content moderators, which is why it’s important to note that not all teachers will necessarily be experiencing compassion fatigue.

LEAH HIRSCH: I want to just say that there’s a lot of happy teachers that I know too. So while there’s many that are dealing with compassion fatigue and burnout, we’re a big organization and there’s a large variety of experience that our teachers have in the world and there’s varying degrees of emotional resiliency. So I just also want to make note that not every teacher is burnt out and not every teacher is struggling with secondary traumatic stress. So I don’t know if that’s going to make its way onto the podcast, but it’s important for me to say that because I think teachers are viewed as they’re just always so frazzled and there’s just so much going on in a teacher’s life. And some teachers are not having that experience at all. Some teachers are 100% happy exactly how their lives are.

DAMON KLOTZ: Thank you to Leah Hirsch from Math for America for joining me. So far on this episode, we’ve learned about concepts like emotional exhaustion, trauma recovery, and burnout. And we also heard firsthand from someone who’s actually helping people deal with this. Taryn mentioned a quote early in this episode where she said compassion fatigue was described as the cost of caring. Your natural reaction to a carer might be someone in the healthcare sector. Maybe it’s someone like my own mother who actually works in an assisted living facility. If you really knew me, you’d know that before joining Culture Amp, I actually worked in the public healthcare sector as a HR graduate. I also created mental health awareness campaigns and also led digital strategy for a group of private hospitals around the world. In fact, the last company that I worked for before joining Culture Amp even had the tagline, “People caring for people.” But outside of healthcare workers, who else comes to mind when I say the phrase the cost of caring?

DAMON KLOTZ: When I think of a profession where caring for people’s experience is at the heart of what they do. I think about the human resource of people and culture team. They are the curators of a world-class employee experience. If you’re a listener of this show, I probably don’t need to tell you why it’s important to care for your employees’ experience. On my episode of Simon Sinek, you might remember that he shared his why with us. He believes that a world in which the vast majority of us wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled at the end of the day is possible. My next guest is Mai Ton and Mai has brought that way to life at multiple organizations, but she also realized that when you care deeply about the employee experience of others, that there can be a personal cost associated with that, especially if you’re working in a fast growth environment.

MAI TON: Hi, everybody. My name is Mai Ton. I’ve been the VP of HR for six different technology startups and now have my own consulting firm called EMP HR Consulting.

DAMON KLOTZ: When I’m thinking about all the different stories that I think should be involved in an episode to really bring the concepts that we’re hearing to life, I always try to think about guests who provide real life stories about the concepts that are covered as well as potentially guests who are going to provide a different opinion or just a really different take on some of the things that we’ve heard. So when it came to building out the story arc for this episode, I just knew that I had to speak to Mai. What you won’t hear Mai and I talk about is the fact that she’s implemented Culture Amp at multiple organizations and how it’s really helped her get validity for her work. You’re not going to hear us talk about the multiple awards that she’s won for this work. What you are going to hear us talk about, is life on the other side of being burnt out. You see, Mai wrote a medium article in October of 2019 called, “Burned Out”. It was a resignation letter that she never got to send.

DAMON KLOTZ: Inside of that post there was a lot of, I think, real truths that a lot of us don’t talk about enough at work, but there was this one beautiful line I actually just want to repeat back to everyone listening, which is, “I’ve always believed that my job was to make sure that this time away from loved ones was worth it by delivering an exceptional employee experience.” And when I read that, it actually reminded me a lot of there’s a moment that the Culture Amp CEO, Didier Elzinga, he uses this one slide of his two sons in a lot of these keynote presentations. And the line that he says with it is that, “We borrow our time at work from people much more important than the work is. So the work better be something meaningful.” Why is this idea of actually and what I was kind of hearing from your quote as well as from Didier’s, is that there’s this element of you that really feels like you’re the custodian of making sure the work matters. Why is this idea so important to you?

MAI TON: Damon, we spend more hours at work and more hours of our lives together with our colleagues than our own family and friends. So if you think about everybody’s journey for those that are working outside of their homes, they leave their family and friends every single day, Monday through Friday, sometimes Saturdays and Sundays, to go and earn an income. And I hope that most everybody has a job that they enjoy. But I always felt as the people leader that my job was to make it worthwhile. If you’re going to leave your six month old baby behind or your newly adopted pet at home, the work that you’re doing every day for 10 hours better be worth it. And so that’s always been my philosophy, which has I think anchored me and rewarded me for thinking like that. I mean the awards were not mine, they were the company awards, but I drove and my team drove the understanding that, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to just spend a day in the park with your loved ones when it’s beautiful outside?”

MAI TON: Instead, most of us have to go from meeting to meeting, back to back. And we’ve scheduled out our days for the entire day with no breaks to spare. So I just, I have an 11-year-old daughter, Emma. And my job is to show her and to deliver to her some type of grounding that you can be a good mother, you can be a good father, you can be a good parent, you can be a good aunt, uncle, sister, wife, husband and do good work at work. So I don’t know, it comes from a place of … Emma’s 11 years old now and I teach her things. I don’t know if you know this Damon, but I have a PowerPoint deck or a Google Slides deck where I’m doing some homeschooling with her because I’m learning the lessons at work. In people teams, I’m usually the first one to find out about pregnancies or adoptions or sometimes illnesses or divorces.

MAI TON: So I guess the good news and bad news and I just feel that we’re all living life at work together. So love it when you can make friends with your colleagues, but I still believe that if you had the choice, you would spend more time with your family and friends. I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but it comes from a place of deep compassion to know that work doesn’t have to suck. You can go to work and be fulfilled and still manage and find time for the things that I think are most important in life, which are your family and friends. One of my colleague’s grandmothers had passed away and I checked in just to see how she was doing, not because I knew about her grandmother, but just this was a colleague that worked in our London office and I just check in from time to time.

MAI TON: She sent me the email explaining that her grandmother had passed away and in my pace and busyness and my lack of response, somebody had reached out to me to say, “You know what, Jane just told you that her grandmother died but you didn’t follow up. You didn’t send an email back. You didn’t call. And so it just made us look like we didn’t care.” And that was another moment where I just said, “I’m so sorry.” So I picked up the phone to Jane and apologized and heard the story of how she was so close to her grandmother and it just, I was like, “You know what? I need to start slowing down,” because this is where I figured out that we’re all living our lives together and sharing these ups and downs. And I had to do a better job of saying, “You know what? The deck that I am preparing for the All Hands meeting has to take a back seat to some of these softer moments in life.”

MAI TON: And so I think because I cared so much, Damon, and because I wanted to make sure that people knew that I was concerned about everything that was good and everything that was not so good in their lives, I think that’s what took the toll on me and fast forward to summer of 2019 and that’s when I just was like, “I’ve got to do something different. It’s weighing on me all of the different things that are going on at work and that we’re all having to live through.”

DAMON KLOTZ: If you’re listening to this and we’re kind of talking about this from the lens of being the head of people and culture or head of HR or the CPO, but also just as like a people leader who has a level of responsibility for a team, you might be listening and saying, “Well, I feel like the organization has an infinite need to provide care and support for these teams and these employees, but I only have a finite capacity to actually give it.” What is your advice of actually wrestling with this kind of supply and demand issue that some people might be feeling?

MAI TON: I think nowadays companies are doing a much better job of paying attention to wellbeing and just general mental health in their companies. There is a lot of stress and especially in fast growing organizations like I’ve been part of, the stress demands are real. So, I would say spot some of the warning signs. And looking back, maybe some of the warning signs for me was that I was bothered by, seems like everything and everybody at random points in the day. And that’s usually not who I am. And so ask yourself if you’re bothered by little things that normally you wouldn’t be bothered by. Like see if you’re able to focus, because I think a lot of times, whether you’re a people leader or another type of leader in your organization, see if you have time to focus. Sure the demands are real, you’ve probably got 50 things to do, but are you able to focus on the most important things in your world? And if the answer to that is, “Probably no,” then I think do something about it.

MAI TON: And for me, I’ve had time for self-care, but there are moments where you can meditate, or take a walk, or make sure you get rest, or just take a break every once in a while. Those are the little warning signals that I wish I would have seen for myself. And now because I have my own consultancy and can kind of work the hours that I need, I just feel that this is the time where I’m writing a lot more, I’m reading a lot more, I’m breathing in fresh air. I went to a meditation studio and apparently I don’t know how to breathe. I couldn’t do the exercises. It’s very hard to breathe on command. So I laugh about it, but it’s been wonderful to be able to spend some time on me, especially for those leaders that do spend a lot of time caring about others and caring for others, that it’s nice to every once in a while to not forget about yourself.

DAMON KLOTZ: Thanks to Mai Ton for joining me. I’m sure that you’ll admit, just like I did as soon as I got off the phone with her, that I was just incredibly moved by her story, her willingness to share her journey in relation to burnout, and just how much that she really deeply cares about her work. So now, we’ve actually heard a few stories of people who were trying to take action on compassion fatigue. So if you’re listening to this and thinking, “I want to show greater empathy for myself. I want to practice some self-care.” Now, before you go Googling, let’s wait. I want to see what Taryn Hughes thinks when I ask her is self-care enough?

DAMON KLOTZ: Is self-care enough to combat compassion fatigue?

TARYN HUGHES: Definitely not. This is my mantra. Self-care is not enough. It’s heartbreaking to me when someone realizes that they’re experiencing compassion fatigue and they Google, like so many of us do. They Google, they see all the symptoms, they see all the horrible things that can happen, and then they see all these extremely long list of the self-care tips and tricks and tools that they’re supposed to do. So person A finds out they’re impacted, they do some research, and then they try to take a bath and they eat their lunch in the sun, and they go to sleep earlier. They do all the things that they should do, but they’re still not feeling good.

TARYN HUGHES: So what kind of message does it send to that person? They’re trying everything and it’s not working. Or they might not even be able to try. And so it goes back to the sense of it’s not just that we put our oxygen mask on first, it’s that we as a community help each other put our oxygen masks on each other, and we recognize, “Oh, you just came off of seeing something really hard.” “You just got yelled at on customer support for an hour.” “You just had your teammates eliminated from the team in a merger and acquisition.” “We need to talk about how this is impacting you and let’s get you some support for this.”

TARYN HUGHES: You can’t do it alone. You can’t heal trauma exposure with self-care. If you could, everybody would do it. Everybody would.

DAMON KLOTZ: What are some of your recommended solutions to combat compassion fatigue for individuals experiencing it?

TARYN HUGHES: If an individual finds out that, or realizes and discovers that they are experiencing compassion fatigue, focus on connection, focus on getting support. Now, not everybody has the same means to be able to access support. Maybe they can’t afford to go to a therapist or a coach to recover. What they can afford to do is they can have conversations with their friends, and they focus on how they’re feeling about the situation. So they don’t come home from work and try to protect their friends and family from what they’ve seen. Usually that’s a typical thing that people like to do. They leave work and they don’t want to go home and complain to their spouse or their friends and they keep it inside. But there’s a very different way that you want to connect around this. So you don’t want to just vent. It’s not about venting and it’s not about complaining, and it’s not about just talking about the problem incessantly.

TARYN HUGHES: You’re talking about when something happens, let’s say for example, if I come from work and I heard some really tough stories from clients and it made me feel less safe in the world because I heard about some of the darkest, most horrible things in the world. It made me feel like I’m losing hope in the world. If I talk about the dark things and I describe all the gory details, that’s going to hurt me more and it’s going to hurt the person I’m talking to. So you want to do it in a way that you debrief that’s sensitive and caring to both people. So I would talk about, “I’m really worried about where this world is going. I’m scared. I’m not sure that we’re going to have the peace and the safety that we have now. I don’t know if my kid’s going to be safe when they go to school.” It’s a very different way of having the conversation and it settles the nervous system, and it allows the two people to do what we call co-regulate. And I’m really advocating for co-regulation.

TARYN HUGHES: So you want to talk to somebody that you trust and somebody that’s in a good space. You don’t want to talk to somebody that just heard the same thing you did because their nervous systems are in shock too. So you want to find someone that’s really in a good space so that you can co-regulate. Them being calm and grounded is going to help you be calm and grounded. So coming together in those conversations before you try to take the bath and block everything out.

DAMON KLOTZ: Something I know that I’ve been guilty of saying in the past is like, coming home after a potentially stressful, traumatic day, one where I’m maybe suffering from compassion fatigue. And coming home and saying the line, “I don’t want to burden you with my day.”


DAMON KLOTZ: Is that something that we should be saying?

TARYN HUGHES: I think that the intention is a beautiful intention, that you want to protect the people that you love. You don’t want to place your burdens on them. The results of you not sharing what happened to you essentially is a missed opportunity for connection and it increases isolation. So, it’s how can you talk about in a way that you connect and you connect with your own feelings and your own lived experience around whatever is troubling you. And the way you talk about it with your spouse or your loved ones is going to be different than how you speak about it at work, and that’s okay and that’s appropriate.

DAMON KLOTZ: Yeah. Finally, I wanted to touch on just sort of solutions to combat compassion fatigue from the organizational level. Is there a particular story that sits with you that you’d like to share about a company who has done a really good job of this?

TARYN HUGHES: Sure. One of my favorite solutions that is really easy to implement across sectors, is what I call a resilience debrief model. And it’s interesting, because in the public sector where I often work and in nonprofits, there is a culture of debriefing, right? You come together, you talk about the critical incident, you talk about how it’s impacting the client that you’re serving, and you talk about the logistics of it and you debrief over that. So this is a change from talking about facts, talking about what happened, to asking the person questions that will help them debrief in a way that is safe and supportive within the workplace. So there’s three questions. One is, what happened? And you want to make it really short and succinct. Just summarize what happened. No gory details. What happened?

TARYN HUGHES: Then, how is this impacting you? And that part you want to expand so that it gets really broad and deep. So what does that mean for you? Do you have nine more hours of paperwork you have to complete? What are the implications to you as a person, professionally and personally? And then, to engage their problem-solving mind, what’s next? And if you hold space in a way for the person that’s talking to be uninterrupted, we’re not giving advice, we’re not sharing our experiences or similar experiences, but you’re just listening, you have three questions and the listener is very intent on just those three questions, what happened, how is it impacting you, what’s next? and you’ll see that they automatically solve the problems themselves.

TARYN HUGHES: And so, I love doing this in groups and I love working with organizations, and I’ve done it a number of times in nonprofits and in the public sector, where they learn this and their face lights up. They came in with a struggle. They sat in the room and there was something that was already heavy on their minds. I’m thinking about one woman in particular that I worked with a couple of weeks ago. She came in, she’s in a leadership position in the public sector, in a city agency, in a criminal justice agency. She has a lot on her shoulders. And there was something very serious that happened and you could see that she was thinking about it. She wanted to be in that workshop we were giving, but her mind was somewhere else. Totally understandable.

TARYN HUGHES: We did the resilience debrief model and her face lit up, and she was just shocked. She just said, “Oh my gosh. I just was able to talk about what happened, talk about how it impacted me, and find a solution in under 10 minutes.” She’s like, “I can’t believe it. Usually I would go to my colleague and I would talk to her for 30 minutes, and I would complain and I would tell her how hard it is. But how is it possible that I was able to find a solution in under 10 minutes and feel good?” She was happy and she felt confident that she could walk out the door, and she was going to put that right into action 10 minutes after she walked out the door. So that’s really the power of how we witness and hold space for people and do it in a trauma informed fashion, which is very different than our normal conversations.

DAMON KLOTZ: Thank you to Taryn for joining me. Throughout the episode, you may have heard Taryn talk about doing work with a not-for-profit sector. The team at Culture Amp wanted to have a look at our data to learn more about the actual different experience that people are having at work, and specifically within the not-for-profit sector. So first, what we actually looked at was the functions who were handling workplace trauma the best. To do this, we looked at questions where we focus on things like access to what you need to do a job well, your level of connection, whether you could bring your whole self to work, your ability to use flexible working arrangements, and whether you’re able to take time out of work when you need to.

DAMON KLOTZ: So, what did we find? Well, the People and Experience teams, along with the leadership function, actually scored the highest when it comes to these questions. And it seems like they might have the mechanisms in place to actually better cope with workplace trauma. But, we also wanted to look at specifically not-for-profit companies and then the legal and financial services industries to see how they scored. And they scored well below the rest, which indicates that they might actually need additional support and training on topics just like these. If we dive deeper into the low scores for nonprofits, well, the results are interesting. Even though the Culture Amp benchmarks I just quoted are made up of hundreds of thousands of data points, we wanted to cross-check them with publicly available data at somewhere like Glassdoor to see the difference. And yes, I know I just said data and data differently. That’s the joys of being an Australian living in America. All right, so what did we find?

DAMON KLOTZ: Nonprofits scored lower on the culture and values, work-life balance, compensation, benefits, and career opportunities. Now, I’m not trying to share all of this data to scare you off from ever working in that sector. I’ve worked there myself and what’s not covered in this data is the real sense of achievement and impact that I found when I was doing this work. I share this data as a reminder that employees in this industry need the support and training on topics like compassion fatigue because the work that they do really matters, and it does change people’s lives.

DAMON KLOTZ: Thank you to Taryn, Leah, and Mai for joining me for this episode. I hope that their stories inspire you to create a better world of work and to remember the words of Michael Ventura, “Empathy unto itself isn’t enough. It’s about taking action.” If you’re going to take action on what you’ve heard in today’s episode, the first place is that you should head to is: There you can learn more about today’s topic, get the full written transcription from today’s episode, as well as get your guide on secondary trauma exposure at work, its impact, and some mitigation techniques. I’d love to know your thoughts on this episode. Like I said, these are topics that I don’t think we’re discussing enough, and I really want to know whether they’re resonating with you and how you’ve experienced the idea of compassion fatigue through your work.

DAMON KLOTZ: Use the hashtag #culturefirstpodcast on the social media platform of your choice, and feel free to tag @CultureAmp or myself @DamonKlotz, because I’d love to join the conversation. I really hope that this episode has landed for you in the way it did for me. This is a topic that I really think we need to be speaking about more at work, and I want to thank all of my guests for having this conversation with me. And until next time, thanks so much for listening to the Culture First podcast.

What’s next

Build a world-class employee experience today

Your browser is out of date. Our website is built to provide a faster, more engaging experience. Your browser may not support all of our features. Please update to the latest version of Microsoft Edge or contact your network administrator.

Close browser update banner