Compassion Fatigue

Are you a compassionate person who enjoys helping others? Does your job require you to be an emotional support for someone else or respond to traumatic events? If you spend a lot of your time caring for the wellbeing of others, you may be at risk for compassion fatigue. It is important to know the cause and symptoms of this so you can take action to reduce its impact on your life and continue to enjoy the work you do.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue refers to the negative emotions someone feels from helping others. This is most common in helping professions, including first responders, counsellors, social workers, police officers, and fire fighters. However, compassion fatigue can affect anyone and show up in both our professional and personal lives. Sometimes also called vicarious trauma, it has many symptoms and can impact daily functioning if left untreated.

Compassion fatigue consists of two parts: burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Burnout is usually a slow onset of negative feelings, hopelessness, and the belief that your work has very little impact. Secondary traumatic stress is a rapid onset of symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, difficulty sleeping, or flashbacks due to secondary exposure to traumatic events. This can happen by listening to someone describe a traumatic event or caring for someone who is in emotional distress.

Symptoms of compassion fatigue

Personal symptoms

Physical: Headaches, fatigue, weakened immune system

Emotional: Anxiety, helplessness, distress

Behavioural: Changes in appetite or sleep, increased irritability, hypervigilance, or being easily startled.

Spiritual: Loss of purpose and meaning or questioning the good in the world

Relational: Distrust of friends or family, isolation, or withdrawal from social environments

Cognitive: Inattention, diminished concentration, pessimism, unwanted or reoccurring thoughts

Professional/Workplace symptoms:

Performance: Low motivation, decreased quality of work, forgetfulness

Morale: Loss of interest or apathy, decreased confidence, feeling disconnected or undervalued, reduced compassion

Relational: Withdrawn or detached from colleagues, increased impatience or conflict with colleagues or clients

Behavioural: Arriving late, calling in sick, general negligence or irresponsibility

The difference between burnout and compassion fatigue

The key difference between burnout and compassion fatigue is their origin. Burnout comes from workplace stress and being overworked beyond your physical,

mental, and emotional capabilities. Compassion fatigue originates from interacting with victims of trauma and being exposed to stories that are emotionally impactful.

I think I have compassion fatigue. Now what?

If you are experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue, there are several ways in which you can care for yourself.

  • Consider your current self-care routine. Are you caring for your emotional, spiritual, physical, mental, and professional self? In what area could you incorporate an enjoyable and effective activity that brings you joy?
  • Explore supports. Social support is one of the key predictors of whether someone will suffer compassion fatigue. Seek out connection with a colleague, loved one, or peer to decrease feelings of isolation. If you are a helping professional, your workplace may also have supports in place for preventing or treating compassion fatigue.
  • Revisit your meaning. When experiencing compassion fatigue, it is common to feel as if your work is meaningless. Remind yourself of why you entered the profession and the impact you have had on other people’s lives.
  • Reflect on your experiences and needs. Mindfulness, journaling, and reflective practice are proven ways to prevent compassion fatigue. Being reflective and grounded in the present moment helps us tune into our needs and implement appropriate self-care strategies.
  • Consider counselling. A mental health professional can help you identify and manage symptoms of compassion fatigue. Cognitive behaviour therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are evidence-based approaches to treating it. Any of our counsellors would have happy to speak more about treatment methods and how specific interventions can help manage compassion fatigue and get you back to enjoying your life and work to the fullest.

Written by Cat Zydyk

References:

Monk, L. (2024). 5 Pathways for healing compassion fatigue. Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute. https://ctrinstitute.com/blog/5-pathways-healing-compassion-fatigue/

Paiva-Salisbury, M.L., & Schwanz, K.A. (2022). Building compassion fatigue resilience: Awareness, prevention, and intervention for pre-professionals and current practitioners. J Health Serv Psychol, 48(1). pp. 39-46. https://doi:10.1007/s42843-022-00054-9.

Southeast Missouri State University. (n.d.) Burnout vs. compassion fatigue. https://semo.edu/faculty-senate/_pdfs/burnout-vs-compassion-fatigue-handout.pdf

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