I recently posted the following question on a popular Facebook group for funeral industry professionals:
How does the company you work for support you in avoiding burnout or compassion fatigue?
I had no idea that a simple question would spark so much discord among the deathcare community. “What’s support?” a few quipped. “Alcohol and cigarettes,” received a few votes. “Suck it up, buttercup,” and “Man up!” were a couple of my favorite responses, highlighting the gender divide still present in our industry. (Over 70% of funeral directors and embalmers the US are male.) As you can imagine, it went downhill from there. A funeral home owner personally insulted me by saying that I had no idea what hard work was and that I should go work a 9-5 at Walmart in my “Bernie Sanders world”, among a few other nasty things. That comment got flagged and removed and he eventually apologized to me, but one thing was very clear: the funeral industry is in need of an overhaul.
Frazer Consultants recently published Self-Care for the Funeral Director: How to Avoid Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. Downloading the book is actually what initially prompted my question. In an industry where many licensed employees deal with long hours, long workweeks, stressful situations, trauma and violence, and carrying the grief of others, it seems that offering some level of support for self-care would be a no-brainer for companies. Although from the responses it seems that some small privately-owned firms and a handful of corporations offer actionable self-care resources for staff, for the most part, self-care is not high on the list of priorities for deathcare companies. Self-care is left up to the individual front line caregivers who may or may not have healthy coping mechanisms.
If you’ve ever been to a funeral director convention, you’ll notice one thing: funeral directors love to drink. Alcoholism is rampant in this industry. Cori Lou, a funeral home owner, funeral director, and embalmer says, “The only funeral directors who don’t drink are religious people and recovering alcoholics.” And the burnout rate among funeral directors is very high. The majority of new people in the industry will leave within five years. If you can’t cope with the stresses of the job in a healthy way and businesses are doing little to support healthy coping mechanisms, this will be a trend that will continue.
One of the problems is the old-school mentality. More women are entering the industry and as Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her book Lean In, our work as women doesn’t end when we leave the office. I believe that it’s possible that women are more susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout, and that is viewed as a weakness by some of the men in the industry. Remember those comments, “Man up,” and “Suck it up, buttercup”? That mentality still exists among some men and even some women in the industry who had to work incredibly hard to establish their foundation and see self-care as a ridiculous notion. But on the flip-side, I’ve seen first-hand the physical manifestation of stress in the body, and I’ve experienced it myself. One thing we can agree on: this profession is not for the lazy. However, self-care should not be equated with laziness. There is room for both in our industry.
Thankfully, there are some companies that currently recognize that self-care must be made a priority, and they are progressively leading the way for others in our industry.
In the meantime, what do we do? The first step, in my opinion, is taking charge of our own self-care: making time to eat right and exercise, using our downtime to fill ourselves up spiritually, spending quality time with the ones we love, and closing the gap between home care and healthcare. Am I doing this perfectly today? Absolutely not. I’m still working on fitting my own self-care into my busy schedule, but it’s certainly something I’m more aware of on a daily basis. I see myself in the funeral business for many years to come, and that means learning to put myself first.
Taking a proactive approach to self-care allows us to serve our families to the best of our ability at all times without compromising our own physical or mental health. We work with death every day so we of all people should know, life is too short to “man up” and do nothing. To do so is a disservice to ourselves and the ones that love us.
Ready for some ideas on how to integrate self-care into your schedule? Start here.