Compassion fatigue

Caring is a positive and essential part of being human, encompassing nurturing, supportive and attentive behaviours. You may do this out of love for a family member or friend, or have made a vocational choice where being in a caring role is an important part of your work satisfaction. But, it's important to remember that although having empathy and giving your all to another person is a wonderful attribute, it can come at a cost if you do not give yourself the same care you readily give others.


What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue or burnout occurs when you are consistently exposed to high, unusual and continued levels of trauma and stress, and your role is to provide care, empathy, concern, and understanding by supporting the mental, emotional and physical welfare of others.

Our emotional resilience has a limit to how much we can sustain being caring and compassionate, whilst under constant exposure to extreme pressure. This year has proven to be relentless with caring, worrying, giving, etc., and can cross over from home/personal life to work and back again, so there is no natural respite.

People that make the choice to work in such environments are at risk, as their limits can be missed, as we naturally expect our heroes to do what they do best – be amazing and cope.  

Family carers are expected to have such strength, as you are caring for a loved one, so why would your compassion reserves be depleted? 

Have you noticed that your colleague, friend or employee is not performing to their usual best, is making mistakes, or having mood and behavioural issues? It’s a warning sign that the carer in them may be in trouble, and this is the time to offer help and understanding – there is a good possibility they are suffering from compassion fatigue.

Naturally caring people may struggle to see the signs in themselves as they are not used to prioritising their welfare and may even feel guilty or a failure if they do. Therefore, it is extremely distressing to experience the below symptoms as they fear they don’t know who they are anymore.

Hence, they need someone to reach out and support them, so here is what to look out for:

 Signs of compassion fatigue

  • Lack of empathy or being intolerant.
  • Difficulty in concentrating.
  • Receiving an unusual amount of complaints/concerns about their work or behaviour.
  • Substance misuse and/or risky behaviours (to avoid thoughts and feelings) i.e. drug abuse, gambling, drinking too much, overeating, overspending.
  • Reoccurring nightmares and flashbacks.
  • Stress-related physical illness i.e. stomach or inflammatory problems, headaches, regularly run down, etc.
  • Low in mood, sad, apathetic, and experiencing anhedonia.
  • Feeling a failure/de-skilled, losing confidence (they may not verbalise this and it may manifest as avoidance, irritation or upset).
  • Diminished self-care i.e. appearance/personal hygiene.
  • Withholding emotions.
  • Becoming detached or isolating.
  • Angry, agitated, blaming self.
  • Mentally and physically tired.
  • Seeming preoccupied or detached.
  • Resistant or denying there is an issue.

How to support someone with compassion fatigue 

Recognising the signs is the first step to healing. This may manifest even months after the crisis, so keep vigilant for the signs.

Here is how to help:

  • Be patient and kind, share your concern and that you care (no blame or criticism!).
  • Normalise their feelings (don’t patronise!).
  • If possible, re-designate/share some of their workload temporarily – respite from continuing to be ‘exposed ‘to care is vital to stop it from getting worse.
  • Allow or arrange for them to have time off even if they cannot take any full leave of absence( it’s a false economy not to – they will eventually end up being off for longer and cause more issues and add to the workload).
  • Give extra support whether that is supervision, a secure non-judgmental space to talk, counselling or occupational health support (if you have an EAP service, use it).
  • Encourage them to talk to someone – colleague, therapist, friends, and compassion fatigue support groups.

If you think you have compassion fatigue, try to practise the following:

  • Spend time with family or friends – learn to reconnect (again this may not feel natural at first, but that’s to be expected).
  • Exercise – the usual fitness, walking, dancing, gardening, basically anything that gets you moving. 
  • Practice relaxation and Mindfulness techniques.
  • Writing a feelings and daily journal, learn to explore and not hold onto negative and self-punishing emotions and thoughts. 
  • Learn to ask for help in future. If we never say we are struggling, we are giving people the impression that all is well, so, in turn, they will not think to offer support.
  • Learn to find fun again, it may take time, but laughter is healing.

If any of this resonates remember you are allowed to have time to heal and repair to get back to being you – you have earned it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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