If you are in a helping profession or role, you often get close to the trauma and suffering of clients or patients to better understand their perspectives and offer solutions. While compassion is a required component of helping survivors, there is also a downside. Compassion fatigue is usually found in individuals who are in helping professions, like first responders, police officers, domestic abuse shelter workers, etc. It is the stress resulting from the traumatized individual rather than the trauma itself. Recognizing early signs and symptoms can be crucial in coping with compassion fatigue.
Compassion Fatigue Defined
Compassion Fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to feel compassion for others. This is also oftentimes described as the negative effects of caring. Compassion fatigue occurs when we are repeatedly exposed to someone’s trauma and is the aftermath of being preoccupied with their suffering. Compassion fatigue has two components: burnout and secondary stress. These are sometimes used interchangeably to describe compassion fatigue, but they are both components of the term itself. Burnout occurs when you have too much work and responsibilities and secondary trauma occurs when you are exposed to someone else's traumatic experience. The pressure of neutralizing a traumatic experience by being empathetic creates a vulnerability for compassion fatigue.
Symptoms and Signs of Compassion Fatigue
Recognizing the signs and seeking early intervention is important. There are many emotional, behavioral, and cognitive signs of compassion fatigue to look out for.
● Feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, and powerless when hearing others suffering
● Anger, irritability, and stress
● Feeling exhausted or burnt out
● Diminished ability to feel empathy or compassion
● Feelings of detachment
● Self isolations or withdrawal
● Substance abuse
● Conflict within relationships
● Reduced enjoyment of activities we used to have fun doing
● Constantly dwelling on the suffering of others
● Constantly blaming yourself
● Shifts in beliefs and world views
● Difficulty making decisions
Examples of Compassion Fatigue in Professions
If you are in a helping profession you are at more risk of developing compassion fatigue. Nursing is a good example of a profession at risk for experiencing compassion fatigue. Being a nurse is a demanding role, and requires huge amounts of empathy and compassion to help those in pain. Social workers are another profession prone to developing compassion fatigue, as they are frequently providing help to those who experience trauma. Research with both of these professions shows that there is a gap between the care they give to others versus the care they want to give due to compassion fatigue. Research has also shown that work-life balance, and acknowledging that you need help can help reduce the symptoms of compassion fatigue.
Managing Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue is common among helping professionals and can be managed. As stated previously, research shows that work-life balance and acknowledgment are helping factors in reducing the symptoms of compassion fatigue. Identify what's important to you and talk to someone who understands what you are going through. Along with caring for others, you need to care for yourself too.
1. Source: Helen Brown (2021) What is Compassion Fatigue? 24 Causes and Symptoms Explained
2. Source: Katy Kamkar (2019) 20 Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue
3. Source: The American Institute of Stress (2022) Compassion Fatigue