Sandy Bruno, youth and family coordinator at Comfort Zone Camp, a national nonprofit bereavement camp for grieving families, experienced compassion fatigue in the aftermath of her husband’s death. She had devoted her full emotional capacity to her children, while synchronously trying to control whatever she could in her life.
“When your partner in life dies unexpectedly, at the prime of their life, controlling things becomes more of a priority,” she tells Mashable. “In theory, that works. In real life, all it did was make me exhausted and wiped out emotionally.”
For those whose roles, whether professional or personal, are inextricably linked with empathy, compassion fatigue is a real and persisting possibility.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is an occurrence that gained exposure during the pandemic, a time when all sorts of caregivers — from nurses and healthcare workers to parents — faced heightened responsibility, reduced boundaries, exhaustion, and recurring trauma. Renowned trauma expert Charles Figley described compassion fatigue as “the deep physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion that can result from working day to day in an intense caregiving environment” — or more simply, “the cost of caring.”
The term compassion fatigue covers the psychological and physical impact of helping others, as licensed psychologist and mental health counselor Phylice Kessler explains the various symptoms.
“The main symptoms of compassion fatigue are feeling helpless and powerless in the face of patient suffering, reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity, and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by work demands,” says Kessler. People with compassion fatigue are also likely to experience “irritability, feelings of detachment, [and] decreased pleasure in work,” psychiatrist Dr. Julian Lagoy tells Mashable. Other effects include numbness, hopelessness, insomnia, anger, and a sense of isolation.
What’s the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout?
These symptoms notably mirror those associated with burnout, an “occupational phenomenon” which is often closely linked to compassion fatigue. Burnout, another commonplace term in the larger conversation about mental health, refers to the intense emotional turmoil associated with one’s occupation, leading to chronic stress and dissatisfaction in the workplace. According to the World Health Organization, burnout’s three key symptoms are “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Dr. Lauren Cook, licensed psychologist, outlines the similar effects of burnout and compassion fatigue, saying, “We can start to lack empathy for others, feel impatient when people reach out, and we’ll want to block off everything on our calendar.” Still, they’re different. Compassion fatigue is a more specific experience, and is often secondary, especially linked to secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma, which result from empathetic engagement with the circumstances of others.
How does compassion fatigue affect people in their work?
The nature of compassion fatigue means that many working in traditional caregiving roles are likely to experience its symptoms. This includes first responders, medical professionals, social workers, and lawyers specializing in family law or criminal law.
Kelli Collins, a licensed marriage and family therapist, describes compassion fatigue as “a shutdown.”
“Think about muscle fatigue — if you work out too hard, your muscles might simply give out,” she tells Mashable. “In the same way, compassion fatigue means your ability to offer compassion to others is dramatically impacted.”
“Think about muscle fatigue — if you work out too hard, your muscles might simply give out. In the same way, compassion fatigue means your ability to offer compassion to others is dramatically impacted.”
– Kelli Collins
Collins herself experienced compassion fatigue as a young therapist working in a community mental health setting, where she “had the strong desire to help” but quickly realized some things were out of her “sphere of influence”. She felt herself becoming irritable with loved ones, sleeping very little, and fantasizing about pivoting careers. It was an overwhelming time, during which she felt she was failing her clients.
“I thought that by giving endless compassion to my clients, I was ‘leaving it all on the field’. In fact, bearing the responsibility for my clients’ pain without consideration for my own needs and limits meant that I wasn’t a particularly effective therapist,” she says.
Bruno, too, says she didn’t take the time to attend to her own emotional needs while undergoing grief. Now, through her work at the Comfort Zone Camp, where she “listens to people’s stories of loss, trauma, and grief” every day, she has learned to take the time for herself, while fostering connections with children and families.
Lynne Hughes, who founded Comfort Zone in 1999 and is now serves as CEO, lost both her parents as a child, experiencing first-hand the lack of resources and support for grieving children. Hughes expresses similar sentiments about the challenge of compassion fatigue, stressing the importance of looking inward.
“Suffering from compassion fatigue does not mean you’re bad at helping or caring, it only means the scale between caring for others and caring for yourself is no longer balanced,” she says. “When you’re in a role where you’re nurturing and caring for others – it’s imperative to extend that nurture and care to yourself so that your ‘well’ does not run dry.”
“Suffering from compassion fatigue does not mean you’re bad at helping or caring, it only means the scale between caring for others and caring for yourself is no longer balanced.”
– Lynne Hughes
But both Hughes and Collins emphasize that it’s not only traditional caregivers who experience compassion fatigue. “It is applicable to anyone in a caring role,” says Hughes, while Collins believes it is a uniquely human condition, occupational or not.
“When you see someone on the street who lacks basic resources, when you get an alert that your local animal shelter has become overcrowded, when you read a news article about war and suffering in another country, you feel the pain of others, and whether you mean to or not, whether you can help or not, you have the strong desire to act.”
Our capacity for empathy means the probability of experiencing some sort of compassion fatigue — even from absorbing the daily news cycle — is high for many. A constant barrage of ominous headlines and doomscrolling has contributed to this effect. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty at the state of the world, such as attacks on reproductive rights, racial justice, and the effects of climate change are real concerns for anyone consuming media or simply existing today, highlighting the importance of recognizing compassion fatigue for what it is — and knowing how to find support. And while some may choose to channel their concern into empowerment and activism, it’s crucial support your own wellbeing throughout the process to avoid exacerbating compassion fatigue.
What kind of support is there for people with compassion fatigue?
The commonality of potentially developing compassion fatigue means many people, from all walks of life, require foundational tools and support to manage it. Resources like Figley’s study on compassion fatigue may provide necessary insight, while organizations like the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, Caregiver Action Network, and The Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers host information, firsthand accounts, and programs for individuals in specific roles. There also are online support groups and forums, like The Caregiver Space and The Psychological PPE Community on Facebook, which facilitates open conversations on “the impact of empathic strain, burnout, and secondary trauma.”
Battling compassion fatigue requires replenishing your own supply of compassion, as Collins says, as it’s a “valuable resource,” one that requires “accepting and honoring limits.” The therapist recommends asking for help to personalise your experience and support strategy: turning to support groups and resources online, or requesting the support of a mental health professional.
Meanwhile, the act of setting personal and professional boundaries was overwhelmingly suggested by the caregivers and therapists we talked to, including Kessler, who deems this practice vital to preventing or recovering from compassion fatigue. “Take some time for yourself where you can find some quiet. Even if it’s cutting back on sound of all kinds, allow yourself space to simply be,” agrees Cook. Hughes suggests practicing routes of self-care: journaling, meditating, or adopting a non-related work hobby.
“It’s the same way the flight attendant tells us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before assisting others during takeoff,” Hughes says. “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.”