compassion fatigue - two people hugging

Compassion fatigue and burnout are some of the downfalls that can be experienced by people working in the helping profession. As a nurse, I have often used those terms interchangeably to help describe some of the stressors that I have experienced from caring for patients and families.

As a counselor intern, I have realized that anyone in the helping profession can be susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout, and having an awareness of these can be the helpful first step towards reducing their impact on our well-being and the care we offer to our clients.

There is a beautiful quote by R.N. Reman that says, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as the expectation to walk through water without getting wet (Teater & Ludgate, 2014). Both compassion and empathy are seen as some of the essential attributes required by a therapist.

Empathy is the feeling of the experience of another person. While compassion is both the feeling and sensitivity of another person along with the motivation to help alleviate the suffering. It is these necessary attributes that can predispose a person to compassion fatigue (Merriman, 2015).

Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

While the terms compassion fatigue and burnout are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. Charles Figley, a professor, and researcher in the field of psychology suggested the main difference between compassion fatigue and burnout is from the source of the stress (Robino, 2019).

Burnout is often the result of occupational stressors such as high caseloads, and overwhelming demands which can result in depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a decreased feeling in accomplishment in a person’s work (Robino, 2019). The stressor is seen to be from the institutional demands of a person’s workplace.

Compassion-fatigue, by comparison, was a term that originated by Carla Johnson in 1992 to describe a form of burnout in nurses. Compassion fatigue was later adopted by the field of psychology to describe the occupational stress affecting those working in caring professions (Coetzee & Laschinger, 2017).

In 1995, Charles Figley defined compassion fatigue as a concept to describe a state of emotional exhaustion and dysfunction that affected the physical, psychological, and social well-being of a person from the prolonged exposure or witnessing the stories of pain and suffering of clients (Robino, 2019).

Compassion fatigue later became a friendlier term to replace secondary traumatic stress which was seen to have almost the same identical symptoms of PTSD and experienced by the helper as a result of hearing and listening to the stories of traumatized and suffering clients (Bride et al., 2017).

Some of the individual risk factors associated with compassion fatigue are personal histories of trauma and loss, limited social support networks, an unsupportive work environment, lack of training, and working in an area with high frequency and exposure to trauma (Teater, & Ludgate, 2014).

Warning Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Recognizing some of the early warning symptoms of compassion fatigue can be an important preventative strategy to lessen the effects. Some of the early warning signals can be feeling tired, arguing with others, inability to relax, constantly feeling in demand or under pressure, feeling like there is a lack of personal time, memory or concentration lapses, lack of interest to socialize or engaging in activities outside of work and feeling irritable, tired, and unfilled (Teater & Ludgate, 2014).

Supervision and Peer Support

Supervision and peer support are regarded as important resources to help with the experience of compassion fatigue. Supervision can be instrumental in helping intern therapists with unresolved trauma and helping to normalize their experiences in practice. In addition, self-compassion which involves positive self-talk, common humanity, and mindfulness (Neff, 2012) is also considered to be one of the antidotes to compassion fatigue.

As caring professionals, our clients and their stories can impact us. Having an awareness of this impact which includes understanding some of our risk factors, early warning symptoms and resources available are all essential in helping to protect our own mental health and ensuring we offer the best care to our clients.

References

Bride, B. E., Radey, M., & Figley, C. R. (2007). Measuring compassion fatigue. Clinical social work journal35, 155-163.

Coetzee, S. K., & Laschinger, H. K. (2018). Toward a comprehensive, theoretical model of compassion fatigue: A n integrative literature review. Nursing & health sciences20(1), 4-15.

Merriman, J. (2015). Enhancing counselor supervision through compassion fatigue education. Journal of Counseling & Development93(3), 370-378.

Neff, K. D. (2012). The science of self-compassion. Compassion and wisdom in psychotherapy1, 79-92.

Robino, A. E. (2019). Global Compassion Fatigue: A new perspective in counselor wellness. Professional Counselor9(4), 272-284.

Teater, M., & Ludgate, J. (2014). Overcoming compassion fatigue: A practical resilience workbook. PESI Publishing & Media.