Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

signs of stress and burnout

As we explore the question of what is compassion fatigue, we recognize that it is not the same as burnout. Compassion fatigue and burnout are two types of stresses that bring about mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. Signs of compassion fatigue are headaches, sadness, grief, avoiding working with certain people, nightmares, and changes in belief systems. They may also experience emotional disconnection from others.

Symptoms can mirror post-traumatic stress disorder, along with psychological distress, muscle tension, and cognitive shifts. Although some signs overlap, for the most part, signs of burnout are anger, frustration, cynicism, negativity, and withdrawal.

Differences between compassion fatigue and burnout

There are four major differences between compassion fatigue and burnout.

  1. Compassion fatigue is caused by the exposure of traumatic material. Burnout is caused by work-related attributes such as the job, coworkers, one’s supervisor and poor work culture.
  2. Compassion fatigue has a rapid onset and can be felt after the first experience of absorbing one’s traumatic material. Burnout emerges gradually over time as the work-related attributes such as too much paperwork, lack of resources, and long shifts, pile up.
  3. Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the impact of helping others. Burnout is a term that describes the impact of a stressful workplace.
  4. Compassion fatigue has a quicker recovery time than burnout, if managed early. Burnout has a longer recovery time.

Burnout Case Study

In order to assess and intervene with issues of burnout, the following case study can be incorporated into one’s learning.

Everly, a 34-year-old, was once enthusiastic about their career and was engaged in the workplace. They considered themselves a good fit for their job. Everly goes to the gym every morning and takes care of their health. They are goal driven and look forward to moving up the ladder in their company. Being single, Everly feels as though she has the time to work long hours and often takes work home. Everly hardly ever says no to coworkers or their supervisor. Everly does not drink alcohol or partake in drug use.

Everly is facing several challenges. Everly’s career is not moving forward, as there is no room for advancement. Everly does not feel as though her supervisor has clear expectations. Being micromanaged, they have limiting control over their own work. Everly has been asked to perform tasks that do not match their job description, which adds to their frustration. Everly explains that they do not delegate, even though they have a lot of work to do, nor do they take breaks. Their hopes for achieving their goals deteriorate. One of the problems being faced is stagnation. Although Everly has several friends, they bottle up their feelings. They recognize the need for a survival strategy to continue to do their work.

You know that Everly has become frustrated that they cannot make decisions about their schedule. They have lost control, feel bored, apathetic, and indifferent about their role. They have stopped feeling engaged and are no longer connected to their workplace. Everly’s work culture is not in sync with their values. Overall, Everly lacks the morale to do their job and is burned out.

Questions
1. In regard to what has been described, what are your feelings about Everly?
2. What do you know about Everly so far?
3. What are you worried about as you provide support to Everly?
4. What are the identified issues in this case study?
5. Considering the context of Everly’s life, what specific factors might place Everly at risk for burnout?
6. What questions might you ask Everly to fully assess the extent of her burnout?
7. What self-care strategies would you recommend to manage burnout?
8. What might be a reasonable goal?

Organizations need to understand both job burnout and compassion fatigue and be mindful of their employee wellbeing. Otherwise, job turnover will impact their bottom line.