What is Compassion Fatigue?

what is compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is the absorbing of another person’s traumatic material. Compassion fatigue is a unique phenomenon to those who work with those impacted by trauma, grief, bereavement and stressful circumstances. Although the experience did not happen to the helper, the other person’s painful experience is extremely felt. Some consider compassion fatigue the convergence of secondary traumatic stress and burnout. However, these definitions are uniquely defined concepts. Burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and vicarious trauma are related to compassion fatigue, but should not be incorrectly interchanged to describe compassion fatigue.

Occupations at higher risk for compassion fatigue

Occupations that have a higher risk of compassion fatigue include those who work in healthcare, mental healthcare, emergency, animal cruelty, the courts, and victim services. These occupations are often exposed to traumatic material. Victim service providers, helping professionals, emergency and community service workers, and health care providers with a high level of empathy can bring have compassion fatigue. They are at risk for exhaustion and a diminished decision-making ability. This is especially true when they are aware of what is needed, want to provide help, but feel helpless to solve the issues that the person is facing.

Certain triggers for compassion fatigue are previous exposure to trauma, extending emotional energy while being present for someone experiencing severe issues, being personally threatened while providing care, or working in a dangerous environment. Other triggers are listening to someone who is depressed or managing the illness of their child. Furthermore, triggers can occur while visiting an accident scene, a suicide, or deal with evidence or reports of trauma and abuse.

Common signs of compassion fatigue

What is compassion fatigue? To answer that question, we must recognize signs that a helper is experiencing it. One sign of compassion fatigue is no longer feeling sympathetic toward others. Helpers may work in situations where people are traumatically bereaved due to a sudden loss such as suicide, homicide, drug misuse death, or accident.

Those impacted by compassion fatigue may no longer feel sympathy for those touched by sorrow. Their level of empathy can be reduced. Common signs are feeling exhausted, angry, and irritable. If they are using negative coping behaviors like drinking, drug abuse, smoking, or gambling, their compassion fatigue is not being managed in a healthy way. It is imperative that they have ways to manage these signs and need positive coping mechanisms rather than negative ones.

If you work in a capacity that puts you at risk for compassion fatigue, Barbara Rubel has training to help you identify symptoms and create a plan for self care.