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Compassion fatigue – the emotional cost of caring


Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been two terms you may have heard about: burnout and compassion fatigue. It can sound like they’re the same thing, but compassion fatigue is a very distinct phenomenon. At AlayaCare, we’ve seen firsthand the impact it can have on care providers. Let’s look at what compassion fatigue means and how we can manage it. 

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is often mistaken for burnout, which is a sense of fatigue or dissatisfaction that usually stems from being overworked or burdened with too many responsibilities. 

While burnout can contribute to compassion fatigue, the term compassion fatigue encompasses a very specific experience. Also known as “secondary trauma” or “second-hand shock”, compassion fatigue is characterised by the emotional, psychological and physical exhaustion that comes from helping others.

People affected by compassion fatigue want to keep on helping others, but they have become overwhelmed by being exposed to trauma. They have taken on the suffering of other people, and this can drive them to the point that they do not feel they have anything more to give. 

Triggers of compassion fatigue

Some common causes of secondary trauma are:

  • Being confronted with suicide or threats of suicide by someone under your care
  • Being physically or verbally threatened while providing care
  • Providing care for those experiencing trauma, illness, grief or abuse
  • Providing care in dangerous or confronting environments
  • Providing care to someone who experiences depression
  • Providing care under a heavy workload, excessive demands, or long hours
  • Providing a service that requires you to deal with graphic evidence or reports of trauma 

Symptoms of secondary trauma

Like burnout, compassion fatigue is a process. It takes time to develop. Slowly but surely, you reach a limit when you begin to not care about yourself or others in your life. You’ve been completely drained of your compassion and empathy reserves. 

At this point, there are some common warning signs of compassion fatigue, including:

  • Chronic exhaustion (emotional, physical, or both)
  • Reduced feelings of sympathy, compassion or empathy
  • Feelings of anger, anxiety or depression
  • Dreading working for or taking care of another and feeling guilty as a result
  • Feelings of detachments – from work, relationships and social activities
  • Hypersensitivity or complete insensitivity to emotional material
  • Headaches 
  • Feeling constantly stressed
  • Insomnia or troubled sleeping
  • Weight loss
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Alcohol or drug dependence 

Treating compassion fatigue

It’s normal for health care professionals, care workers and many other professionals to feel overwhelmed at times due to the nature of their work.

However, if you’ve started to notice any of the above red flags and these symptoms persist, please reach out to your doctor or a trusted health professional. They can provide a personalised treatment plan or refer you to a specialist who can support you. 

While everyone’s circumstances are unique, common approaches include the following.


Self-care strategies

Self-care isn’t a luxury – it’s essential for anyone at risk of compassion fatigue. Self-care helps you feel your best mentally and physically, making you less vulnerable to the effects of secondary trauma. Self-care includes:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Focus on a healthy sleep routine
  • Take time for yourself each day – even if it’s only 10 minutes
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Prioritise healthy relationships and friendships

Maintaining your social connections is vital to your wellbeing. It helps prevent loneliness, isolation, and depression, along with the onset of compassion fatigue. Spending time with friends and family is also a great way to promote clearer boundaries between your work and personal life and provides a way to de-stress and take your mind of things that are getting you down.

Psychological support

Seeking out professional counselling or psychological support can help you manage compassion fatigue. Not only is it important to have someone to talk to about what you’re going through, a mental health professional can also teach you coping strategies to address negative thinking, stress, depression, and anxiety. Remember, there is no shame in seeking out professional support – in fact, it’s an incredibly courageous thing to do.

Keep a journal

Journaling has long been an effective way of managing stress. Writing down your thoughts, worries or concerns can be very therapeutic as it allows you to get things off your chest and process your experiences. Some people find that by keeping a regular journal, their negative feelings can feel less intense and more manageable over time.

Care for yourself so you can keep on caring

Some people feel shame or even guilt for experiencing compassion fatigue. But remember that it is very common and very treatable. Identifying the warning signs are the first step to finding ways to manage your fatigue and prevent it from affecting your quality of life down the track.

At AlayaCare, we believe in better outcomes, including the better health outcomes of our clients and the industry. Contact us today to learn more.