Compassion fatigue refers to the “emotional cost of caring for others or their emotional pain”, whereby the individual struggles emotionally, physically and psychologically from helping others as a response to prolonged stress or trauma.

It is often commonly confused with stress and burnout however it is not the same; burnout is a psychological response which involves emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment due to occupational stress. However, compassion fatigue arises from dealing with individuals who are in psychological distress or have been psychologically traumatised.

How does compassion fatigue impact on health and social care staff?

Compassion fatigue develops over time, with healthcare workers being at high risk. Although compassion fatigue is not a mental health condition, it is associated with worsening mental health rates amongst caregivers and has led to more nurses leaving the profession (Nolte et. al, 2017). It also negatively affects the individual’s deliverance of care to others and their performance of occupational tasks.

The term was first defined in the early 1990s when it was considered a “unique form of burnout”. While compassion fatigue has been shown to be reversible and potentially preventable with recognition, understanding and permission for recovery (Johnson Moore, 2016), it is important to recognise its early warning signs, seek support and implement practical strategies to decrease the risk of burnout and development of other mental health conditions.

The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have identified many common warning signs of compassion fatigue:

  • feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the face of patient suffering
  • reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity
  • feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by work demands
  • feeling detached, numb and emotionally disconnected
  • loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • increased anxiety, sadness, anger and irritability
  • difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • difficulty sleeping and sleep disturbances like nightmares
  • physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, upset stomach and dizziness
  • increased conflict in personal relationships
  • neglect of your own self-care
  • withdrawal and self-isolation
  • an increase in substance use as a form of self-medication

If you recognise any of these signs in yourself or another person, you can talk to our wellbeing practitioners for a free, confidential chat.

Research on compassion fatigue is relatively recent and requires more investigations. Based on emerging evidence, the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health have a list of some recommended tips and strategies for helping with compassion fatigue. You can also watch the TED talk by Patricia Smith on her experience of Compassion Fatigue and recommended coping strategies.

  • Johnson Moore, K. (2016). “Compassion fatigue among nurse leaders.”, Doctor of Nursing Practice Thesis. Drexel University.
  • Nolte, A. G., Downing, C., Temane, A. & Hastings-Tolsma, M .(2017) “Compassion fatigue in nurses: A metasynthesis”, Journal of Clinical Nursing
  • Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
  • Cocker, F., & Joss N. (2016) “Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers: A Systematic Review."

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