Updated: Nov 2, 2022
“Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”
⚠️ Trigger warning
Death, suicide, and violence are mentioned in brief detail, in relation to property insurance claims
Images of heavily-damaged homes and personal property
Table of Contents
“We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.” – C. Figley, 1995
“I wasn't prepared, for that.”
I routinely see a certain level of property loss and destruction in my work as a public insurance adjuster, and in my volunteering for policyholder advocacy. Thankfully, I have formal training in compassion management, from my time in non-profit crisis outreach. However, even with my years of formal training, experience, and exposure to extreme situations and emotional losses, nothing prepared me for the photo, below.
If you regularly read or watch the news, you'll likely have seen hundreds of disaster photos like this over the years:
But you may not have seen one quite like this.
Look at the picture again, focusing on the left of the home.
You may not have noticed this before, but there is an elderly gentleman standing in the corner.
Doug Quinn, director of the United Survivor Disaster Relief, and the American Policyholder Association, took this photo while on deployment for disaster victim outreach with long-time partner and fellow disaster victim and policyholder advocate, Heather Shapter, in late 2021:
“Took this picture down the bayou. House is elevated for a flood, but that doesn’t help for wind. Two walls and all their belonings are gone. We saw many houses like this, some even worse. I didn’t realize until looking at the picture last night that there was an actual person in the house standing on the left side. I don’t notice him because he was frozen in place. This elderly man is probably in shock. Looking at what’s left of his house & belongings, trying to grasp what happened & how does he possibly move forward from here? I know this feeling well, I’ve been there. But it’s different for seniors… Young people can lose everything & shrug it off knowing that they have the rest of their life to get it all back again. What do you do when you’re 70 & don’t have decades of income producing years ahead of you to recover? What do you do when everything you’ve spent your life accumulating vanishes in the wind…your pictures, sentimental keepsakes, family heirlooms? All gone.”
Update, 11/1/22: Read more about Doug and Heather's nonprofit disaster victim outreach.
Imagine how this could affect you if you were exposed to this, regularly, and weren't even aware of the possible psychological effects!
Even if you are not a first party property insurance professional, you likely have experienced something similar, just having gone through the tumultuous, worldwide events of the last three years, triggered by COVID-19.
If you are not familiar with the property insurance industry, here are just a few examples of common losses and stressors that insurance adjusters, contractors, and other professionals may encounter:
It is common in large or catastrophic residential fire losses for beloved family pets to perish, and in some cases, there is loss of human life In the case of pets that didn’t make it out with the family, you will almost always see the outline of the family's pet (usually a dog or cat) on the floor or carpet. Individuals that are 85 and older are at most risk of fire death, and are the most common demographic of fire death victims that I’ve seen in my work, although I have encountered fire deaths involving small children.
Biohazards within property claims Every day, there are professionals that cleanup and mitigate, or visually document and adjust property damage claims involving natural death, suicide, or other violence or accidents, that resulted in loss of life for humans and/or animals. Further details of which, I will spare you of.
Insurance company staff and independent adjusters may experience an overload of assigned claims and policyholder clients The claims department is a service department. While a positive claim experience can certainly contribute to policyholder retention and referrals, it does not directly make an insurance company any money. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, insurers were looking to modernize their claims processes to save on operating costs through automation and digitization, and many large insurers were laying off employees. As insurance companies look to further digitize the claims process by utilizing Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the claims process, and focus on Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) to reduce claim servicing costs, this will inevitably lead to less humans being involved in the claims process. This means that disputes or claim issues that are required to be escalated past automation and AI will likely be placed on a relatively few individuals' shoulders.
Insurance claim dispute resolution and legal proceedings By its nature, dispute resolution can be negative or combative. Negativity bias—and other affects of repeated exposure to negative environments—can coexist with, and contribute to, compassion fatigue. Public adjusters and contractors come in contact with large numbers of policyholders that often do not have the knowledge or the ability to effectively advocate for themselves within an insurance claim. This burden is then transferred by proxy to the professionals working for the policyholder. Insurance company adjusters can also bear this burden, as well as attorneys.
Severe injury or death for professionals on hazardous loss sites, most commonly falling through, or off, roofs Inspecting damaged structures for claims can be dangerous work. At least a few times each year, I see charitable campaigns on social media and networking sites for adjusters and restoration contractors that have fallen off/through a roof. In these cases, it's typically to pay for health care expenses if they have been severely or gravely injured (and at times permanently disabled in some way). Sometimes, it may be for funeral expenses. Often a spouse and children are pictured in the social media posts. This tragic scenario happens more often than the general public may be aware of. When I am on loss inspections with insurance company adjusters and restoration contractors, we all take great care to look out for each other, for safety considerations. We are careful to make sure that conditions are safe before climbing roofs, or entering unstable structures.
Insurance professionals are face to face with many types of property losses, every day. However, many do not realize that they are also exposed to emotional losses, vicariously.
Now that we've covered a few scenarios of where, when, and who compassion fatigue might affect in the first party property claim industry, we will take a look at the definition, and symptoms of compassion fatigue.
The Basics of Compassion Fatigue
The American Institute of Stress explains compassion fatigue in detail:
Also called vicarious traumatization or, secondary traumatization (Figley, 1995). The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a “cumulative” level of trauma.
Dr. Charles Ray Figley, founder of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, coined the term compassion fatigue during his research into trauma in the 1980s. Compassion fatigue has been documented among social workers, first responders such as firefighters, law enforcement, and paramedics/EMTs, caregivers, disaster victims, and more.
According to Dr. Figley, “The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brings helpers into this work: their empathy and compassion for others.”
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Affects many dimensions of your well-being
Nervous system arousal (Sleep disturbance)
Emotional intensity increases
Cognitive ability decreases
Behavior and judgment impaired
Isolation and loss of morale
Depression and PTSD (potentiate)
Loss of self-worth and emotional modulation
Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted
Beliefs and psychological needs-safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control
Loss of hope and meaning=existential despair
Anger toward perpetrators or causal events
The American Bar Association has recognized compassion fatigue as affecting those working in the legal field, resulting in symptoms such as substance abuse as a coping mechanism.