Compassion Fatigue

Why left-brained advisors must strengthen their right-brain muscles

By Gary Shunk and Megan Wells

Key Takeaways:

  • Financial professionals tend to operate from the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls linear, logical and rational thought. The right hemisphere controls emotions and the nonrational, nonlinear issues in life.
  • Since the economic downturn, many advisors have experienced a surge of emotionality in their practices and must start utilizing their right brain more.
  • When advisors get no break from the flood of client anxiety (e.g., calls, emails, tense in-person meetings), they start to experience compassion fatigue.
  • This article shares helpful resources and exercises for strengthening your right-brain empathy muscles.

Since the dark days of the global financial crisis, I have been speaking to financial professionals about psychologically reframing the current financial and economic downturn as an “economic trauma.”

For many wealth holders, the emotional shock of recent economic times has been a deeply distressing experience. For advisors, the emotional impact on clients has demanded new skills and, in some cases, has caused advisors to experience secondary trauma. This second tier of trauma is referred to as “compassion fatigue.”

Remember September 11, 2001? For days, weeks and months, many of us anticipated the next volley of plane attacks. Similarly, when the markets crashed in late 2008, we were numbed by the prolonged trauma on Wall Street, Main Street and the world. Thoughts of the Great Depression dominated people’s thoughts, as many wondered whether history was repeating itself. Many investors reacted with anxiety and anger. Irrational decisions were made. Clients hastily fired advisors and moved accounts to other firms. Assets were moved out of stocks at low value points into cash or other “safe” securities.

When just trying to help clients isn’t enough
Charles Figley, a professor at Tulane University who is a prominent expert on trauma and disasters, once defined compassion fatigue as “a state experienced by those helping people in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper.”

The end result is that those giving aid often suffer from the same symptoms as the trauma victims that they are trying to help.

“The helper suffers through his or her own efforts to empathize and be compassionate. Often, this leads to poor self-care and extreme self-sacrifice in the process of helping,” Figley said in a Medscape.com interview. “Together, [these lead] to compassion fatigue and symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Most financial professionals operate primarily from the left hemisphere of the brain, which controls linear, logical and rational thought. The right hemisphere deals with emotions and the nonrational, nonlinear issues in life. Since the downturn, many financial advisors and family office professionals have witnessed a surge of emotionality in their practice lives. This has caused them to work out of their right hemisphere. Just as a weak muscle becomes fatigued from sudden overuse, the right sides of advisors’ brains are becoming fatigued. Being constantly pushed to practice right-brain empathy by this surge of client anxiety (e.g., through emails, phone calls, and face-to-face encounters with clients, colleagues, and even friends), professionals are beginning to experience compassion fatigue.

“I can see why advisors are feeling horrendous,” Patricia Smith once told us. Smith is the founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, an organization devoted to promoting the awareness and understanding of compassion fatigue. “Money affects peoples’ lives profoundly.”

Warning signs of compassion fatigue

Repeated contacts with clients who are contentious, angry and anxious about the financial and economic environment can take their toll on any advisor, said Smith, adding that advisors can feel “drained” or “emptied out” on physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

According to Smith, the fatigue comes when advisors fail to take care of themselves and don’t “fill up” again. Simple things such as eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising and engaging in yoga, meditation or other relaxing activities are some of the ways advisors can recuperate. She added that an in-office visit to an expert on compassion fatigue also can be a remedy.

Experts say two warning signs of compassion fatigue are guilt and indecision. Advisors with compassion fatigue may find themselves feeling a sense of guilt. Though they are not personally responsible for Wall Street’s decline, they still may feel responsible for their clients’ investment losses. This guilt may seem logical and rational, but in truth, inappropriate guilt is a symptom of compassion fatigue, according to experts.

Loss of confidence can result in indecision, experts say. Advisors, for example, may be stuck in a state of inaction for fear of causing further client losses. Other signs of compassion fatigue can be irritability, sadness, a sense of heaviness or pointlessness and even rage symptoms that can, over time, impact an advisor’s decisions and job performance if left untreated, according to experts.

Helpful resources

For those who suspect they may be suffering from compassion fatigue, the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project offers a self-testing tool on its web site at www.compassionfatigue.org.

Educational information about compassion fatigue, including ways in which caregivers can help themselves, is also available at the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology.

In some cases, firms are taking proactive steps to prevent compassion fatigue from impacting their staffs. At the end of 2008, Kirby Rosplock, director of research and development with GenSpring Family Office, mandated a review of client families’ capital sufficiency needs. The review looked at how the downturn impacted those needs, where the clients wanted to invest from that point forward and how the firm would help them achieve those goals.

Charlotte Beyer, founder and CEO of the Institute for Private Investors, told us that among her firm’s family clients she saw a significant difference in response based on attitude. Families that were “not abdicators,” according to Beyer, remained active, collaborating participants with advisors. These investors were not seeking someone to blame. Instead they experienced “humility,” she says. One client discovered he would rather miss a good opportunity to invest than lose principal, Beyer says.

Of the families that felt victimized and looked for someone or something to blame, stress was high, she says. Beyer emphasized the importance of advisors having empathy for their clients but not being doormats.

Empathy muscle workout

Returning to the metaphor of an unused muscle being suddenly used to the point of strain, it is important to develop empathy skills as though they were muscles needing balance in the workout.

Here are some basic skills to begin:

  1. Try to assess your own level of fatigue.
  2. Examine feelings of inappropriate guilt or chronic indecision.
  3. Take an inventory of your output versus input. Are you giving out too much without filling back up?
  4. Commit to a healthy sleep schedule.
  5. Feed your sense of humor.
  6. Limit the use of alcohol or food as a stress reducer.
  7. Talk to fellow advisors to get tips and perspective.
  8. Practice listening to clients with balanced empathy.
  9. Remember that though you may feel bad for your client, the situation is not necessarily your fault.
  10. You can listen to and understand a client’s emotions, but remember that you can’t change their emotions.
  11. Fixing is not always needed. Time heals many fears.
  12. Be patient with yourself, your clients and the economy.

One of the silver linings of the economic downturn is that the financial industry is moving from left-brain to whole-brain thinking. The development of right-brain emotion, creativity and insight in the financial advisory profession will have a significant impact on the future economy.

About the Authors

Gary Shunk, Principle of Family Wealth Dynamics, consults with families in business, families of wealth and the advisors who serve them on the nonfinancial issues of intergenerational relationship dynamics, communication and trust building. He can be reached at www.familywealthdynamics.com or by emailing gary@familywealthdynamics.com.

Megan Wells tours nationally as a story artist and consultant. As a Facilitator with Witmer and Associates’ Unleashing the Leader program, Megan coaches top level executives to flip their storytelling upside down for eyebrow raising results. She works out of Chicago and can be reached at www.meganwells.com.