People with compassion fatigue can feel helpless, less empathetic and sensitive, and overwhelmed and exhausted by work demands. In this Mashable article, Mindpath Health’s Phylice Kessler, LMHC, and Julian Lagoy, MD, discuss how compassion fatigue likely affects first responders, medical professionals, social workers, journalists, and lawyers specializing in family or criminal law.
Sandy Bruno, youth and family coordinator at Comfort Zone Camp, a national nonprofit bereavement camp for grieving families, experienced compassion fatigue in the aftermath of her husband’s death. She had devoted her full emotional capacity to her children, while synchronously trying to control whatever she could in her life.
“When your partner in life dies unexpectedly, at the prime of their life, controlling things becomes more of a priority,” Bruno says. “In theory, that works. In real life, all it did was make me exhausted and wiped out emotionally.”
For those whose roles, whether professional or personal, are inextricably linked with empathy, compassion fatigue is a real and persisting possibility.
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is an occurrence that gained exposure during the pandemic, a time when all sorts of caregivers — from nurses, healthcare workers, and parents — faced heightened responsibility, reduced boundaries, exhaustion, and recurring trauma.
The term compassion fatigue covers the psychological and physical impact of helping others, as licensed psychologist and mental health counselor at Mindpath Health, Phylice Kessler, LMHC, explains the various symptoms.
“The main symptoms of compassion fatigue are feeling helpless and powerless in the face of patient suffering, reduced feelings of empathy and sensitivity, and feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by work demands,” says Kessler. People with compassion fatigue are also likely to experience “irritability, feelings of detachment, [and] decreased pleasure in work,” says psychiatrist Julian Lagoy, MD, with Mindpath Health. Other effects include numbness, hopelessness, insomnia, anger, and a sense of isolation.
What’s the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout?
These symptoms notably mirror those associated with burnout, an “occupational phenomenon” which is closely linked to compassion fatigue. Burnout, another commonplace term in the larger conversation about mental health, refers to the intense emotional turmoil associated with one’s occupation, leading to chronic stress and dissatisfaction in the workplace. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout’s three key symptoms are “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Compassion fatigue is a more specific experience, and is often secondary, especially linked to secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma, which result from empathetic engagement with the circumstances of others.
How does compassion fatigue affect people in their work?
The nature of compassion fatigue means that many working in traditional caregiving roles are likely to experience its symptoms. This includes first responders, medical professionals, social workers, journalists, and lawyers specializing in family law or criminal law.
Kelli Collins, LMFT, describes compassion fatigue as “a shutdown.”
“Think about muscle fatigue — if you work out too hard, your muscles might simply give out,” Collins says. “In the same way, compassion fatigue means your ability to offer compassion to others is dramatically impacted.”
Collins experienced compassion fatigue as a young therapist working in a community mental health setting, where she “had the strong desire to help,” but quickly realized some things were out of her “sphere of influence.” She felt herself becoming irritable with loved ones, sleeping very little, and fantasizing about pivoting careers. It was an overwhelming time, during which she felt she was failing her clients.
Lynne Hughes, who founded Comfort Zone in 1999 and now serves as CEO, lost both her parents as a child, experiencing first-hand the lack of resources and support for grieving children. Hughes expresses similar sentiments about the challenge of compassion fatigue, stressing the importance of looking inward.
“Suffering from compassion fatigue does not mean you’re bad at helping or caring, it only means the scale between caring for others and caring for yourself is no longer balanced,” Hughes says.
Read the full Mashable article with sources.