Matt Reiner Featured in Advisor Perspectives: Shouldering Stress: Your Role as ‘Atlas the Advisor’

The first client of the week enters your office and sinks into the chair opposite yours. They planned to retire in two years, but they’re worried the market’s recent volatility will set their plans back indefinitely. You take some time to console them, offer them tissues and a cup of coffee, and listen to their concerns.

The second client comes in upset as well. So does the third. The fourth. The eighth. The tenth. You’ve done your best to give them the care and attention they need. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you’re tired. The end of the day seems to come later and later. You wake up feeling irritable, detached, and less rested with each passing day. Work doesn’t normally do this to you. Yet here you are, feeling as fatigued as you’ve ever been.

Empathy fatigue is something no one wants to talk about. However, much like running with a 100-pound rucksack clinging to your back, you can’t carry other people’s emotional weight for long without your legs giving out. You’re left with a choice:

Do you square your shoulders and keep going until you collapse?

Or do you stop caring altogether?

There’s an alternative.

The expanding role of the advisor

An integral part of an advisor’s job is to serve as an emotional bulwark between your clients and their bad, stress-induced financial decisions. They may be grieving, scared, panicked, depressed, manic, just hungry and exhausted, or in any number of mental states that hamper their decision-making. And you can hardly blame them; money can agitate our brains more than politics, religion, or any other hot-button issue. Maybe you didn’t sign up to be the babysitter, but here you are.

Standing between your clients and a fiscal cliff is inherently stressful. You aren’t their parent, sibling, or best friend. You don’t have authority over them. All you can do is urge caution and try to talk them out of it while the knowledge that they could fire you at any time looms heavily in your mind. You have to be present, empathetic, and genuinely care about your clients if you want them to stick around.

But a prolonged commitment to coaching individuals and families through hard times can take a toll on your mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress. While it’s important to care for your clients and lead them in the right direction, you also need to look out for your own wellbeing.

Relieving empathy fatigue: A two-front war

“Tiredness” falls way short of describing empathy fatigue. It compounds like other kinds of burnout.Sufferers can feel increasingly anxious, detached, hypersensitive to criticism, irritable, unable to sleep, and depressed. None of that’s good for you. And neither are the diminished focus, brain fog, and general avoidance of work that come with empathy fatigue.

Much like other forms of burnout, empathy fatigue can only be treated by an enhanced focus on self-care. There are two main factors at play: the stress (i.e., the symptoms) and the stressor (the cause).

Treating stress

Many of the methods for treating stress sound very easy. For instance, the Mayo Clinic recommends:

  • Eating more vegetables and whole grains
  • Cutting back on alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
  • Practicing better sleep hygiene
  • Recording your thoughts in a journal
  • Meditation
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Speaking to a therapist
  • Learning to say “no”
  • Spending time with friends and family

These are all great suggestions, and some combination of them will undoubtedly relieve a significant amount of stress. That said, it is hard for busy professionals to make time for things like therapy and spending more time with friends and family, and many people don’t have the time or energy to cook healthy meals for themselves or exercise after work.

Take a few moments for yourself whenever you get the chance. Take a hot bath instead of a shower. Use the minutes between meetings to meditate and do breathing exercises instead of browsing the internet. Buy pre-made (healthy) meals and swap your third cup of coffee for one of those healthy vegetable juices at the grocery store. None of this will fix the situation, but every little bit helps.

Your options for addressing the underlying stressor – your clients’ emotions – are limited. Ask yourself two questions:

  1. How long do I have to keep this up?
  2. How long can I keep this up?

There’s no telling how long a downturn will last. Your clients may keep using you as a substitute therapist for months or even years to come. If you don’t think stopgap measures like meditating and eating healthier will be enough to carry you to the other side, there are only a couple things you can do: reduce your exposure to your clients, or take time off on a regular basis. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to reduce stress is to decrease exposure to the stressor.

Take care of yourself. There’s a reason why airlines say you should put your oxygen mask on first. You can’t help anyone if you can’t catch your breath.

Read the Advisor Perspectives article here.