Updated: Feb 1
Have you ever met a doctor, nurse, or social worker, someone whose profession is based on compassion, and yet they seemed hardened? It almost seems as if they have very little empathy to spare for another human being, despite working in a field with direct service to other people.
On the surface, they might seem efficient because they are not burdened by panic or overwhelmed with feelings. You might think that their patients’ or clients’ problems don’t affect them.
However, this cold efficiency could be one of the most telling signs of compassion fatigue. This can just as well happen to HCAs due to the stress of working as a caregiver.
What Is Compassion Fatigue and How Does It Happen?
Compassion fatigue is a feeling of emotional exhaustion or indifference and diminished compassion, brought on by the emotional, mental and physical exhaustion of working in a highly stressful job that involves potentially traumatic experiences.
Compassion fatigue is often referred to as secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma. These names come from the fact that the stress or the trauma stems from a traumatic experience that the person has come into contact with through their work.
For instance, a doctor whose patient dies, or a lawyer representing a client on death row would be at particularly high risk of compassion fatigue. However, compassion fatigue can also be the result of several smaller traumatic incidents.
Is Compassion Fatigue the Same as Burnout?
The answer to this question is not straightforward. Compassion fatigue is not the same thing as what we normally call burnout, but they have some similarities.
Both compassion fatigue and burnout are brought on by stress, and both result in exhaustion. This exhaustion can be mental, physical or emotional, or any combination of the three.
However, there are two differences:
Cause: Regular burnout is caused by working too many hours, poor management or toxic work culture. The causes of compassion fatigue have more to do with exposure to traumatic situations.
Duration: Burnout has a longer, more gradual onset, and it takes longer to recover from. Burnout is a result of an accumulation of stress over time, whereas even one severely traumatic experience can bring on compassion fatigue.
It might be argued that compassion fatigue is a special kind of burnout that happens in professions that require high levels of compassion that involve high levels of stress and potentially traumatic situations.
Compassion fatigue and regular burnout can often strike together and compound each other.
Who Is Most Commonly Affected by Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue most commonly affects workers who work in jobs with high emotional stakes. Their work mostly involves working with other people who are in a traumatic situation - for instance serious health or legal problems.
Some of the professions that are at the highest risk for compassion fatigue include healthcare workers, especially hospice workers, caregivers, therapists, prison guards, and first responders.
What Are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?
The best thing you can do is to try to pay attention to your emotional state. There are some very telling signs of compassion fatigue that can warn you early on so you can help yourself or reach out for help before it worsens.
You Can’t Stop Thinking About Work
The jobs that have a high risk of compassion fatigue are usually stressful, so feelings of stress are normal and to be expected at some level. However, if this stress spills over into your private life and you can’t stop thinking about work when you’re off the clock, that might be one of the first signs of compassion fatigue.
Your Appetite Changes
Appetite changes are another common early sign of being traumatized or overwhelmed with stress. Both an increase and a loss of appetite are possible, and they are often followed by weight loss or weight gain if they continue over time.
You Suffer From Insomnia
As with any trauma, you might experience intrusive thoughts or memories that can prevent you from falling asleep. Nightmares are also not uncommon.
You Experience Mood Swings
Research has shown that compassion fatigue can give rise to many negative emotions such as depression, anger, and irritability, which can cause mood swings both internally and with others. This can often intensify as you age.
You Feel Detached and Numb
Apathy and diminished compassion are one of the most recognizable symptoms of compassion fatigue. Feeling indifferent in the face of suffering and lack of strong emotions are common. You might also find yourself avoiding social contact and feeling detached from your friends and family.
You Engage in Self-Destructive Behaviors
People affected by compassion fatigue often engage in self-destructive behaviors. That can be a tendency to overwork themselves, but it can also lead to addiction and substance abuse.
How Can You Avoid Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is often brought on by grief or loss. Just like friends and family need to process their grief, so do caregivers. It is quite normal that caregivers get attached to their clients and feel sad, stressed out or grief-stricken when their clients are suffering or when they die.
Caregiving is a challenging profession, and caregivers often neglect their own mental, emotional and physical health because they are too busy taking care of their clients. It’s very important to practice self-care, and to always be on the lookout for signs of compassion fatigue.
Luckily, compassion fatigue is not a permanent condition. It is important to recognize it early on, so you can take care of your needs before it gets harder to deal with over time.
Here are some ways you can avoid compassion fatigue, or handle it if you have already experienced it.
Process Your Grief
Forming attachments with clients is natural and one of the things that enable you to feel compassion. But this also means that when they are seriously ill or they die, it’s going to affect you emotionally. Don’t go into it with the mentality of “It’s just work”. Allow yourself to feel and process your emotions.
Self-care means different things to different people. Start with the basics - proper sleep, a healthy diet, and physical exercise. But self-care is more than just satisfying your most basic physical needs. Take the time to really care for your own needs beyond drinking enough water and going on a morning run a couple of times a week.
Establish a Healthy Work/Life Balance
People affected by compassion fatigue can often be less productive, which can lead to procrastination. Alternatively, people can bury themselves in work, to avoid dealing with these feelings. Neither of these ways to cope is healthy. It’s crucial that you draw a clear line between work and your free time.
You should do your best at work of course, but once your shift is over, try to focus on your own life until you need to go back to work. This can be easier said than done at times.
One easy way to build this habit is to create some kind of simple ritual after work before getting into home life, such as washing your face right when you get home or putting on a favorite song during the commute, to help shift your mindset and focus.
Ask for Help
When you don’t feel like you can deal with your compassion fatigue by yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are plenty of online resources like the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project that you might find helpful.
You can also reach out to friends, family, or colleagues, or find one of the many online support groups on social media. If you feel like you’re struggling you can also consult a therapist, who can help you sort through these situations and emotional triggers to find healthy ways to cope and heal.
The one thing you should not do is ignore the way you are feeling and keep going, hoping that things will go back to normal by themselves. Ignoring these feelings is a good way for this condition to continue, worsen, and lead to potential serious health problems for you over time.
Always remember that you need to treat yourself with the same compassion that you show to your clients. If you wear yourself out and don’t take the time to restore and recover, it not only affects your quality of life, but the quality of care you can provide to your clients.
It is always worth the effort to take care of yourself. You deserve to live a life with purpose, fulfillment, and happiness, just the same as the clients you care for every day.