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Liz DeCarlo

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How to combat compassion fatigue and burnout, while still helping clients.

It’s been months since the pandemic started, with its lockdowns and financial turmoil. Months of comforting clients who have lost their jobs or retirement savings. You’ve been there for them, rebalancing portfolios, reminding them of their life insurance cushions, connecting them with other clients who may have employment opportunities, and providing a listening ear for their stress and anger.

But there’s a limit to just how much of other people’s emotions one person can absorb, and without even realizing it, you may have hit yours.

The term “compassion fatigue” is a technical term from the health profession that describes what happens to a person when they’re holding onto a lot of stories filled with sadness, stress or anger, explained Megan McCoy, Ph.D., LMFT, director of the Personal Financial Planning Masters Program at Kansas State University and a member of the Financial Therapy Association (FTA) board of directors. “In being empathetic, you can start experiencing emotional or physical exhaustion. It can also result in you not having as much compassion or empathy because you have given so much already.”

How do you know if you’re experiencing compassion fatigue? You may experience more sadness, exhaustion, anger and frustration, McCoy said. Physical manifestations can be headaches, stomachaches and tiredness.

If you’re working long hours and not getting a break, chances are you’re also experiencing burnout, which will feed into the compassion fatigue and make it more difficult for you to do a good job, McCoy said.

It goes back to what you hear every time you get on an airplane: You have to put your oxygen mask on before you help others, said Meghaan Lurtz, MS, Ph.D., immediate past president of the FTA. “Financial advisors going through what we’re going through right now with COVID-19, I know you all feel like this is your Super Bowl, and it is,” Lurtz said. “You’re so excited to be there for your clients, maybe you’re killing yourselves to be there for your clients, because you’re wonderful advisors.

“But at the same time, this is setting you up for compassion fatigue, and in many ways, setting you up as a poor role model for your clients.”

So how do you combat compassion fatigue and burnout while still helping your clients? Lurtz and McCoy shared some strategies:

1. Take care of yourself first.

Tell clients you’re turning off your phone at night to be with your family, and you want them to do the same. Turn off the news and don’t dwell on the stress of the day. “It’s really important for advisors to remember that being good to yourself is not a selfish thing to do,” Lurtz said. Give yourself time to rest your emotional muscles so that when you’re in meetings with clients, you can remain emotionally engaged.

2. Express empathy, not sympathy.

What’s the difference? Sympathy means feeling bad for someone or feeling pity for them, McCoy said. What you want to feel is empathy, which is putting yourself in their shoes and truly grasping where they’re coming from. This lets you have some perspective and not feed into some of the emotionally driven decisions they’re making due to anxiety and stress.

“When we remain objective, we’re able to hear our clients’ unique challenges, which is what we’re there for,” Lurtz said. That means being empathetic, but not becoming emotional yourself.

3. Bring in a teammate.

With all the stress and anxiety you and your clients might be feeling, having a teammate present can help make sure you don’t miss anything in a meeting. “It’s also a check to make sure you’re not over-identifying with your client,” McCoy said. The teammate can give feedback and provide extra perspective. Having someone else present can also ward off any anger your client might be feeling about their situation, which they might direct at you.

4. Fill client meetings with hope.

If a client meeting could potentially be stressful, think about goals, Lurtz said. “I love this quote from Maya Angelou. She says that hope and fear cannot occupy the same place. Invite one to stay,” Lurtz said. “It’s important to first begin our client meetings this way, engaging the goal and recognizing the fear and anxiety.”

For clients who have suffered a financial loss, the result is generally a goal that’s lost, for instance retiring next year or contributing to an education account. “So they’re not necessarily upset about the money; they’re upset the goal has taken on a different form or shape,” Lurtz said. Talk about the goal, let them know it’s still achievable and how you’ll work on that with them.

5. Remind clients that things pass.

Bring out charts and historical references. Talk about what has happened in past epidemics like SARS. Let them know what happened in 2008, Lurtz recommends. “Even though history can’t tell us exactly what’s going to happen in the future, it still lets us know things are going to rebound. So you may say to your client, ‘Here’s what we understand. Here’s what we’re able to do.’”

6. Give clients a to-do.

Clients may not like the idea of coming to visit a financial advisor, only to be told to sit tight and hope it’s going to be OK, Lurtz said. So give them something to do. It might be something that’s part of the rebalancing process, or maybe it’s reminding them of their goal to spend more time with their grandkids.

7. Wrap up with positivity.

“So you’re talking about the historical things that have happened, flexing your financial muscles and giving the client something to do that’s not going to hurt their portfolio,” Lurtz said. “And then when you’re closing the meeting, again we’re going back to Maya Angelou. We want the hope to stay. So you’re reiterating what their goals are, what their hopes are, and as they leave the meeting, they are going to feel so much better.”

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