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Compassion fatigue results when someone loses their ability to feel empathy for their clients, loved ones or co-workers because they have been repeatedly exposed to the difficult and traumatic stories and descriptions experienced by others. It is often described as ‘having nothing left to give’ or ‘nothing left in the tank’. The affected person can no longer relate in an empathic and caring way towards the people they usually assist because they are overwhelmed with extreme exhaustion and are experiencing the symptoms of trauma.


There are two components of compassion fatigue:

  1. Burnout and,
  2. Vicarious or secondary trauma


What is Burnout?

Burnout is a feeling of utter and complete mental, physical and emotional exhaustion and is often the endpoint of prolonged stress. Professionals experiencing burnout report that that feel thoroughly depleted to the point of collapse. When burnt out, people can experience life as imploding or collapsing around them. It’s not unusual for sufferers to report that they don’t recognise themselves anymore. Sufferers may not be able to fathom how they managed to ignore the signs and symptoms that they were heading towards such an extreme degree of fatigue. It is often a major shock to find yourself so depleted that you can longer function in a way you were used to.


What is Vicarious Trauma?

Vicarious trauma is trauma that results from the exposure to another’s experience of trauma through listening to stories or descriptions. It’s a second-hand or secondary form of trauma. Compassion fatigue can actually mirror the symptoms of primary exposure to traumatic experiences such as intrusive images, dreaming about traumatic situations, or avoiding certain activities or specific clients that trigger a trauma response.


Even the most seasoned professionals experiencing compassion fatigue may unravel and question their careers as helping or caring professionals. Compassion fatigue can seriously undermine your judgement, your capacity to care for yourself and others, and depletes the body and mind so severely that attending work becomes impossible.


It’s a scary place to find yourself, but recovery is possible.


Who’s most at risk for compassion fatigue?

The people most vulnerable to compassion fatigue are those that care deeply about the welfare of others and who offer sincere heartfelt empathy. It’s a cruel paradox that the skills most valued in the profession, such as providing empathy and compassion, to assist others in need are the same qualities that can lead to compassion fatigue.

Not all people are vulnerable to compassion fatigue; however, professionals most likely to experience it include helping and care providers such as nurses, veterinarians, family practitioners, police officers, mental health professionals, emergency workers, first responders, crisis shelter workers, youth workers, caseworkers, and therapists. The family and friends of victims of trauma can also be vulnerable to compassion fatigue.


What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?


Each person experiences compassion fatigue in their own unique way; however, there are common symptoms, which include:
• Loss of hope and a sense of cynicism
• A diminished sense of purpose or enjoyment of your career
• Hypervigilance
• Ineffective and/or self-destructive self-soothing behaviours
• Depression
• The dread of working with specific individuals
• Lowered frustration tolerance
• Increased outbursts of anger and rage
• Difficulty separating work from personal life
• Intrusive thoughts/images of another’s traumatic experience or your own historical trauma
• Heightened and persistent negative arousal
• Overwhelming emotional, mental and physical exhaustion that doesn’t decrease after rest
• A change in your world view whereby you feel a reduced sense of safety
• Lowered functioning in non-professional situations.


What are the specific characteristics of those most vulnerable to compassion fatigue?

Not everyone is susceptible to compassion fatigue. Those individuals at most risk may have one or more of the following characteristics.
• Are single-mindedly dedicated and committed to their work
• Actively pursue positive feedback even when striving results in a risk to their health
• Have low self-compassion
• Have a high capacity to tolerate exhaustion in the pursuit of results
• Have a personal history of trauma
• Work with large and complex caseloads or work demands
• Work in unsupportive workplaces and feel unappreciated and undervalued
• Have poorly established or unavailable social networks or personal supports
• Identify with their victims and relate to their victim’s personal stories.


I think I have compassion fatigue; what can I do about it?

Healing from compassion fatigue involves a three-pronged approach.

1. Firstly, take immediate steps to implement self-care practices that address your exhaustion.

If you’re able to, take time out from work to focus on your health holistically. For example, psychologically and emotionally detach from work and your clients to allow your mind and body to rest and recalibrate. Be compassionate to yourself and nurture your journey back to wellness. Long work hours, demanding caseloads, and exposure to distressed clients can lead to compassion fatigue. Pull back from your workload, and if you can, renegotiate your caseload.


2. Secondly, ask your employer to implement strategies that will better protect employees from burnout and vicarious trauma.

Organisation-directed interventions are vital to addressing the stressors that contribute to compassion fatigue in the first instance. For example, caseload – the number of clients a caseworker assists, the ratio of time spent with a client, the frequency a client is seen, the amount of interagency liaison required, and how caseload is distributed within work teams – is associated with stress and burnout. Develop a system for allocating caseload that doesn’t burn staff out.


3. Thirdly, seek out a compassion fatigue-informed therapist that can help you recover.

A therapist or counsellor can assist you with all aspects of compassion fatigue to facilitate a journey back to wellness and improve your ability to stay healthy in your chosen profession.


Author: Alison Bickell

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