Recognizing Compassion Fatigue + How to Manage it

Compassion fatigue. It’s a term heard in jobs settings where employees are on the front lines (social workers, EMT’s, doctors, nurses, teachers, etc). It’s also a term used to describe the “indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals”. When you work on the front lines, you are subject to emotional stress; you take on the emotions of others. If you, yourself, are unable to regulate and process the emotions of others, it can be challenging to find job satisfaction or become next to impossible to continue helping those who may rely on you as a primary source of stability.

Recognizing the Signs

Compassion Fatigue affects all dimensions of the individual. Some signs to look out for include:

– Sleep disturbance

– Emotional intensity increases (employees may gossip about clients)

– Cognitive ability decreases or slows

– Isolation and loss of morale

– Anger toward perpetrators or causal events or anger towards management and co-workers

Compassion fatigue is a process that occurs over time and often over the course of an entire career. Some experience symptoms in greater intensity while others work diligently throughout their careers to ensure their emotions are properly regulated, explored and dealt with.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

We can’t confuse Compassion Fatigue (sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma) with burnout. They’re actually very different. Compassion fatigue is often a profound emotional and physical erosion. Often sufferers of compassion fatigue are unable to refuel. In the end, it often leads to switching career fields all together or a prolonged effect on physical and emotional health. Burnout occurs when there is usually a physical collapse (sometimes emotional collapse) due to overwork and stress. This is usually a more short-term effect and can be alleviated by switching jobs.

Compassion fatigue can also cause the helper to change their worldly view. An example of this is in the case of social workers who often see the most vile of situations, especially those who work with children. A social worker may find themselves believing less in the human spirit due to the disturbing actions of other humans. Coupling the stress of the client with the helper’s emotional needs can often result in an unfair balance.

We must also note that burnout is often felt in fields unrelated to the helping professions. Individuals who are in an administrative position may feel severe work-related burnout. Often, these individuals make career/job changes soon after experiencing the early signs of burnout.

How to Manage Compassion Fatigue

  • Create a self-care plan for the work environment: The key here is to create a self-care plan you can use at work. Whether that be a 15 minute walk/break every few hours, a warm cup of tea throughout the day or simply a space within the office environment where you can sit and breathe. A self-care plan can help put those notions into action.  

  • Get everyone on board with proper self-care: education is key. Understand that some employees might not feel self-care is necessary while others need a boost in the research surrounding self-care and the effects of Compassion Fatigue on the body.

  • Hold a compassion fatigue training: Train yourself or another staff member on the information presented and teach a training.

  • Enlist the trust of a supervisor, co-worker or outside professional: Your coworkers, supervisors and other professional staff are there for YOU. Utilize their expertise, their office space and their desire to help you be the most productive with a knack for self-care.

Some people might not be aware they’re experiencing compassion fatigue - educate them!