A Guide to Understanding and Coping with Compassion Fatigue

Actively paying attention to what’s going on at home and abroad can help ensure you are an informed citizen who is well positioned to lend a helping hand when needed. But with a constant flow of news stories about natural disasters, the opioid epidemic, mass shootings, hate crimes, and international conflict, staying informed and engaged can be overwhelming, especially for those who work or volunteer to provide relief to affected communities. People working in helping fields like social work, including individuals interested in becoming a social worker, must be mindful of their own needs in order to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Individuals may experience compassion fatigue when they are exposed to others who are suffering and the emotional toll of the event expands to physical pain, according to Dr. Charles Figley, editor of Compassion Fatigue: Coping With Secondary Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized. Sometimes referred to as secondary or vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue results from physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project also notes that compassion fatigue may result in apathy or a reduced ability to be empathetic. The risk for workers in helping fields is that compassion fatigue could prevent them from performing their tasks effectively, and they might avoid the situations where they are needed most.

Frank M. Ochberg, a renowned expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, Stockholm Syndrome, and the effects of violence and trauma, discussed how compassion fatigue affects charity workers in an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Many people associate compassion fatigue with caregivers and those in caregiving jobs because of their frequent exposure to their clients’ pain and suffering. That may include first responders, nurses, physicians, social workers, counselors and nursing home staff. However, other fields can experience compassion fatigue.

“The same traits that make [foreign service] professionals good at their work — empathy, compassion for others and tenacity — can, when self-care is neglected, turn into compassion fatigue,” wrote USAID international development specialist Kovia Gratzon-Erskine in the Foreign Service Journal.

Likewise, lawyers who practice criminal, family or juvenile law are at risk of experiencing compassion fatigue. Their jobs may require them to be regularly exposed to human-induced trauma, listen and read victims’ traumatic stories, and view graphic evidence or pictures of crime scenes.

In fact, no one is immune. The 24-hour news cycle can cause stress and limit a person’s ability to feel empathy, according to Patricia Smith, founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. Speaking to Utah Public Radio, Smith gave this advice to those who feel overwhelmed by coverage of news events: “Limit what you’re viewing. Limit what you’re reading. Limit what you’re seeing. It’s all about boundaries, personal boundaries.”

What Are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

While secondary trauma, which is an emotional response to another person’s tragedy, is an intrinsic part of compassion fatigue, another component is burnout. In an article for Family Practice Management, the authors point to the following warning signs for compassion fatigue:

  • Misuse of drugs, alcohol or food
  • Anger
  • Need to place blame
  • Chronic lateness
  • Depression
  • Feeling of failure
  • Exhaustion (physical or emotional)
  • Frequent headaches
  • Gastrointestinal pain
  • High self-expectations
  • Hopelessness
  • Hypertension
  • Inability to maintain balance of empathy and objectivity
  • Increased irritability
  • Less ability to feel joy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of sleep
  • Workaholism

How Can I Cope with Compassion Fatigue?

Self-care is key when it comes to dealing with compassion fatigue. Disaster workers are trained to screen survivors for negative behavioral health effects and use their training to develop resilience and build strength. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has provided a number of ways disaster workers can avoid compassion fatigue (PDF, 1.1 MB) and encourages them to use the tips on a routine basis, even when not on a disaster assignment. Others in helping fields can apply those strategies, which include:

  • Focus on the four core components of resilience: adequate sleep, good nutrition, regular physical activity and active relaxation.
  • Get enough sleep or rest.
  • Stay hydrated and eat nutritional foods.
  • Practice good hygiene.
  • Wash up after your work shift as a symbolic “washing away.”
  • Communicate with friends and family.
  • Create individual ceremonies or rituals that allow you to focus your thoughts on letting go of stress or honoring a memory of something positive.

Where Can I Get Help for Compassion Fatigue?

Helping professionals in many industries offer tips and resources that are useful for anyone suffering from compassion fatigue. If you are in need of help or want to learn more about compassion fatigue, review the following resources:

Organizations and Support Groups

Toolkits and Brochures

Podcasts and Videos

This article is for informational purposes only. Reach out to a professional if you believe you feel that you have compassion fatigue and need help.

Last Updated: April 2020