Compassion Fatigue: What It Is and How to Prevent It

Psychology. Criminal justice. Medicine. Social services. Many people seek out careers in these fields because they truly want to make a difference in others’ lives. However, there is an emotional toll — and sometimes a physical one, too — that comes from working with people at their most vulnerable. This is called compassion fatigue, and left unchecked it can be a source of stress that deteriorates the caregiver’s quality of life and his or her relationships with friends and family.

Compassion fatigue is also called vicarious traumatization or secondary traumatization. It is not the same thing as burnout, which is typically caused by emotional exhaustion but not trauma.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is the stress and trauma that comes from helping those in need, especially victims of violence and neglect. Caregivers may be unable to remain detached, and experience feelings of trauma and pain themselves. Symptoms can build up over time or appear suddenly.

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project provides this definition from expert Charles Figley: “Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

Compassion fatigue can be exacerbated when the caregiver feels like the only person committed to another’s well-being. Faceless bureaucracies, red tape, circular processes, a lack of improvement — all of these things can make a caregiver feel like he or she is alone and no one else cares about the people involved.

Do You Have Compassion Fatigue?

The first step in dealing with compassion fatigue is to be aware of it. The Professional Quality of Life (ProQoL) self-test can help with diagnosis. It is free and available in 21 languages.

While the self-test is useful, all individuals will experience compassion fatigue differently. Some may feel the emotional effects most sharply; others might see physical changes. Here are some of the symptoms commonly associated with compassion fatigue:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Reduced empathy for others
  • Increased stress
  • Exhaustion
  • A feeling of dread before going to work
  • Trouble relaxing or sleeping
  • Problems with friends and family
  • Questioning career choices
  • Weight gain or loss

How Can You Lessen the Effects of Compassion Fatigue?

Once a caregiver is aware of compassion fatigue and can identify the symptoms, what next? He or she needs to find balance, so that the negative trauma doesn’t disrupt the sense of well-being, fulfillment and happiness. Self-care is the bulwark against compassion fatigue. Some useful self-care practices are eating healthy, exercising, getting a full night’s sleep, and making time for enjoyable activities.

Caregivers should consider making friends outside of work. People with similar jobs may also be dealing with compassion fatigue, and will understand your situation and be able to commiserate. However, outside friends may offer a balanced perspective and lessons learned from working in other industries.

At work, consider creating a support group and scheduling regular breaks with colleagues to reduce stress levels. A genial trip with others to the break room might help de-escalate a stressful experience.

When a caregiver feels lost, he or she should seek out professional counseling to process feelings and investigate coping strategies.

Working with others is rewarding but challenging. While stress is indeed part of the job, it doesn’t need to disrupt care, kindness and performance if compassion fatigue is understood and addressed well.

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