Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue

Though it is commonly associated with nursing or social work, compassion fatigue can impact anyone in the helping professions. Teachers, therapists, first responders, and even pastors are just some of the professions at risk of developing this mental health issue. But what is it, exactly, and how would you know if it is happening to you?

It is important to note that compassion fatigue and burnout are not the same thing. Burnout can be described as trouble coping with workplace demands, often due to a stressful work environment, and can occur in a variety of settings. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is vicarious or secondary trauma that develops as a result of working in helping professions. While burnout tends to occur over time, compassion fatigue can happen suddenly. Both can be detrimental to your wellbeing.

If you or a loved one works in the healthcare industry, you may have seen or heard the term “compassion fatigue” being used to described the experience of healthcare workers directly involved in pandemic-related care. However, research on the phenomenon has been occurring since the 1980s, and extends far beyond the doors of hospitals and clinics. With increased pressure on healthcare systems and social resources, risk for this occupational hazard is on the rise.

Research suggests that experiencing burnout is a major predictor of developing compassion fatigue. In addition, studies have found that learning about a traumatic event can trigger similar symptoms to witnessing a traumatic event, even if the listener was not directly involved. When you consider the additional pressures and demands of most workplaces on top of handling the important work of empathetic care, it’s easy to see how compassion eventually has its limits.

Compassion fatigue is not a personal failing. It is a natural response to overwhelming situations or information. Certain factors have been shown to raise the risk for developing compassion fatigue in professions such as nursing and genetic counseling. These include:

-High levels of self-criticism

-Feelings of burnout

-High caseloads

-Experiencing or hearing about potentially distressing events at work.

Though you will not yet find compassion fatigue as a recognized mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V), it has the potential to disrupt your life and cause significant distress. Consider that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, was not recognized as a mental health diagnosis until the 1980s, though psychologists had been observing the symptoms of PTSD for years prior. Similarly, compassion fatigue is now a widely accepted phenomenon in the mental health community and literature, and warrants professional support whether it is “officially” recognized or not.

The following warning signs were adapted from a compassion fatigue self-assessment. Please do not consider them a diagnostic tool. This is not a complete list of symptoms and is not a substitute for professional help. If you find yourself relating to any of these symptoms, it may be worth addressing with a mental health therapist or other qualified provider.

-Changes in sleep patterns or dreams

-Experiencing intrusive, unwanted thoughts about upsetting situations

-Avoiding activities, people, or thoughts that remind you of upsetting events

-Struggling with setting boundaries around work and personal life, or “taking work home” with you

-Significant changes in worldview

-Feeling isolated or unsupported in discussing work life

-Feeling depressed or losing interest in things you used to enjoy

The good news is that compassion fatigue tends to resolve faster than cases of burnout. Certain factors can reduce risk for compassion fatigue in helping professional populations:

A Self-Compassion Practice

A regular self-compassion practice can support a gentler view of yourself and provide mental health benefits beyond reduced self-criticism. Oftentimes, we speak to ourselves in ways we would never dream of speaking to a friend or loved one we care about. Self-compassion work is an evidenced-based practice that has been shown to increase well-being and reducing symptoms associated with a variety of mental health issues. A great place to start is https://self-compassion.org/, where you can find resources and more information about this important aspect of self-care.

Supportive Others

Due to the limits of confidentiality, working in a helping profession can feel isolating at times. Supervisors, mentors, or colleagues who can understand the pressures of your role and offer support can be invaluable in times of high stress. Support and consultation groups exist for certain professions, which can offer a confidential area to receive feedback and spend time with others who can relate. Word-of-mouth or the internet can offer some options to begin your search.

If possible, utilize time off or sick days

It can be difficult to justify taking time off work when clients, patients, students, or others need your help. However, compassion fatigue significantly impacts our ability to care for others in an empathetic way. Many counselors and social workers go through their graduate coursework hearing the airline safety phrase “put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.” When we recognize our limitations and address our personal needs, it allows us to show up more fully as caregivers. Sometimes, this means detaching from work. Whether it’s a mental health day or an extended vacation, time off can be an important resource when healing from compassion fatigue.

If you found yourself relating to this post and would like to talk more about it, we are here for you. Compassion fatigue is a very real, very treatable issue. If we are not able to place you with a therapist in our practice, our commitment is to offer referrals for other providers in the community. You can learn more about our team or request an appointment for more information.


This article was originally written by Carley Foster LCPC at https://thetherapycollectivemd.com/

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