For Duluth Group Home Workers, Care Comes at an Emotional Price

Photo of Nathan Petersen  

Twenty three year-old Nathan Petersen relishes the fact that he can come home from his job and know that he can make a difference in other people’s lives, but the experience can leave him emotionally drained.

For two years, Petersen has been employed as a care assistant by one of Duluth's 53 licensed group home companies. He assists in the residential care of adults who have experienced traumatic brain injuries.

“The residential cares are the easy part,” Petersen said. “The emotional aspect of the job is harder to deal with.”

Like other human service workers,  Petersen has an enormous capacity for empathy. It helps him relate with his clients on an emotional level to give them the best care possible.

“I do my job because I have a desire to help people in need and to make a difference in their lives,“ Petersen said.

Caregivers like Petersen can be susceptible to what those who research high-stress jobs call compassion fatigue (STS). It can also be seen in people who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder like firefighters, police officers and members of the military.

“Compassion fatigue is the residual stress felt after working in an environment that is emotionally draining,” leading traumatologist at Tulane University, Carl Figley said in a phone interview.

Some of the clients Petersen has worked with sometimes cannot remember where they are or what they are doing because of the stress on their brain. When Petersen encounters a client in a state of amnesia and delusion, the client may become enraged. Even though Petersen has worked with them extensively, the client may think Petersen is an intruder in their home.

It is Petersen’s job to diffuse the situation with something he calls an “approach."

To perform an approach, Petersen gently reminds the client of who he is, who his client is, where they are and that the client has had an injury and is just a little confused.

“It’s difficult to convince somebody that what they are experiencing and what’s all around them at that moment is not actually real,” Petersen said.

Petersen knows that what he is doing is a service that is valuable to the client’s well being and to the family, but sometimes he cannot help but feel he is taking his job’s emotional strain with him wherever he goes.

“It’s a very thankless job,” Petersen said. “The hardest days for me are when clients will tell me that I’m only here for a paycheck. It’s hard not to take comments like that to heart.”

“Day-in, day-out care of the vulnerable population is a hard thing to do. People in the field need a healthy coping mechanism for the stress that they will face, or they risk self-medication with drugs and alcohol,” Employee Assistance Program Therapist Bob Lyman said.

Sometimes compassion fatigue can make life at work difficult.

Mike Boston, Staffing Coordinator for Northland Adult Foster Care, has seen his employees struggle with compassion fatigue. He attributes many cases of compassion fatigue to high expectations.

“When employees (Care Assistants) come to work for us, they tell us they expect to make a difference and help people,” Boston said. “The problem with expectation is that many of the people we care for aren’t going to improve, and sometimes, they might get worse. Sometimes that is too much for an employee to take, and they quit with a bad taste in their mouths.”

Compassion fatigue can be dealt with in a multitude of ways.

Therapist Bob Lyman believes the best way to deal with compassion fatigue is by talking, thereby separating one's own emotions from the feelings they are experiencing through clients.

“When someone has compassion fatigue it is because they have been ignoring their own feelings for too long,” Lyman said. “Talking with people and getting emotions out in the open is a good practice because it allows the individual to be mindful of their emotions and listen to them.”

When Petersen gets home from a hard day at his group home, he follows Line’s advice and talks with people he trusts with something he calls “Church.”

“Church is not actually religious. It is something that work staff does after a shift,” Petersen said. “We get together ...and talk about what happened at work.

Group home workers utilize “church groups” because of something called HIPAA privacy law, which prevents care workers from legally talking about their specifics of their clients.

“The people I work with are really careful about it (HIPAA),” Petersen said. “If we go out to a bar and start talking about a client some of their family members could be in the booth next to us. I have heard of that happening in another company.”

Petersen and his group home co-workers have instead held their church meetings at one another’s houses to ensure privacy.

While church is helpful for Petersen, it isn’t what sees him through compassion fatigue. He also reflects on the life he has been granted and is thankful.

“Every day I go to work I do my best to make someone’s day, because one day I could slip in the shower, and my reality could change forever,” Petersen said. “It’s a humbling thought to realize that I could just as easily be in their place.”


Editor's Note Feb. 26, 2015: The sentence beginning with, "Petersen’s capacity for care also leaves him vulnerable to an undiagnosable symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) called compassion fatigue (STS)." Has been changed to: "Caregivers like Petersen can be susceptible to what those who research high-stress jobs call compassion fatigue (STS). It can also be seen in people who experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder like firefighters, police officers and members of the military." It was changed to clarify that people who experience compassion fatigue are exhibiting one symptom of PTSD and do not necessarily have PTSD.


Editor's Note Feb. 26, 2015: The quote beginning with "We get together ...and talk about what happened at work." Has been changed to emphasize Nathan Petersen's coworker's social bonding. Previously alcohol was mentioned “We get together, have a drink and talk about what happened at work.” The word 'drink' in this context was not in reference to alcoholic self-medication, but rather a responsible social environment.

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