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You can’t give what you don’t have

Master Sgt. Joseph Hardy, 50th Network Operations Group First Sergeant (Courtesy photo)

Master Sgt. Joseph Hardy, 50th Network Operations Group First Sergeant (Courtesy photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.- --

Recently, one of our great 50th Space Wing chaplains asked the Schriever first sergeants if we would like to attend a class on combatting compassion fatigue.  Compassion fatigue is a very real issue that often affects first responders, counselors and other caregivers.  These people spend so much time with other people’s problems, they eventually “run out” of compassion, or put simply, become jaded.  I believe variations of this can happen to leaders at all levels from frontline supervisors to commanders.

What can we do to help fight against this feeling?  For me, I think of a saying I have heard time and again in many different contexts.  “You can’t give what you don’t have.”  One thing I love about this saying is it can fit into so many different situations and remain true.  It can be heard anywhere from a preacher’s pulpit, all the way to a courtroom ruling.  The way I apply this to supervisors and leaders at all levels is as a reminder to take care of yourself. 

If we do not take care of ourselves and let ourselves become emotionally or physically drained, we are in a poor position to help others.  If we get ourselves into a position where we are too fatigued, we may become apathetic to the needs of our co-workers and subordinates.

Now, this appeal to take care of ourselves will not be new to most of us.  But for many of us, when it comes to actually spending time, or effort, on self-care we cannot help but feel a little guilty.  After all, isn’t it selfish to spend time taking care of myself when there are other people out there who need my help?

An illustration I like to think of will be familiar to anyone who has ever flown.  In an emergency depressurization, why do the adults put on their oxygen mask before helping the children?  Is it because the adults are being selfish and care about themselves more than others?  Do they want the children to pass out?

 Of course not.  We know it’s because the adults would not be able to help anyone if they passed out from oxygen deprivation.  What would happen if all the adults passed out because of a mistaken bias against self-care?  

As for my self-care, I am actually writing this article from the kitchen of my father in-law’s farmhouse in Kansas, taking a well-needed week of leave.  Yes, there is a lot going on back at the 50th Network Operations Group I could be helping with right now. I feel a little guilty for being here cooling my heels while others carry-on without me, but I know this time is an investment, both in myself and in my family that will pay big dividends when I return.

If I just work and work until there is no work to do, I will be burned out long before the work ends, and a burned-out leader is far less effective and more damaging to the mission than a leader who is out for a week of leave.  So, remember to take the time to take care of yourself when you can, because you can’t give what you don’t have.