If you are a caregiver experiencing exhaustion, burnout, feelings of self-doubt, or losing sleep, you are demonstrating compassion fatigue symptoms. In this blog, we’ll break down each of those symptoms and learn how to combat compassion fatigue.

“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” - Dr. Charles Figley

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

A Canadian study in the Archives of Internal Medicine by Leeat Granek notes the following as common symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Feelings of failure, guilt, self-doubt, sadness, and powerlessness
  • Loss of sleep
  • Reduced sense of efficacy on the job
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed with obligations
  • Apathy and emotional numbness
  • Secretive addictions or self-medicating in a variety of ways
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Intrusive thoughts, dreams, or nightmares
  • Pessimism

Oftentimes, the person affected is the last to recognize what is happening. If you are a friend, family member, or a colleague to someone who you feel may be exhibiting signs of compassion fatigue, bringing it to their attention to critical to their mental well-being.

For employers with multiple employees experiencing compassion fatigue, addressing the negativity is critical to avoiding a toxic culture across the organization. First, let’s explore who is most at risk.

  • New caregivers, as they are more likely to get overwhelmed by their unfamiliar responsibilities.
  • Those with a history of personal trauma.
  • Caregivers that interact with a greater number of clients have an increased likelihood of exposure to traumas.
  • Those working long hours are more likely to experience sleep deprivation, in addition to those that provide care in their personal lives as well.
  • Caregivers who find it difficult to communicate their emotions tend to let stress build up, increasing their own risk of trauma.
  • Individuals who lack an adequate personal support system miss out on the emotional support needed to prevent trauma.

An Opportunity for Organizations

Tackling compassion fatigue with proactive approaches is a great way for organizations to support their staff. These can include:

  • Formal debriefing sessions
  • Internal support groups
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Corporate wellness programs/committees
  • Flexible hours
  • Job sharing

The Ten Laws Governing Healthy Caregiving [PDF], along with other resources at the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, can serve as mantras to reframe situations from trauma to empowerment.

Managers, administrators, and human resources professionals can encourage and stimulate conversation about the subject via bulletin boards, staff meeting discussions, and/or coaching/supervision sessions. Formal debriefing sessions, internal support groups within an organization, Employee Assistance Programs, and corporate wellness programs/committees are other opportunities for raising awareness and helping those who are experiencing compassion fatigue.

The Caregivers’ Bill of Rights [PDF], The Ten Laws Governing Healthy Caregiving [PDF], The Ten Laws Governing a Healthy Workplace [PDF], and The Ten Laws Governing Authentic, Sustainable Self-Care [PDF] found on the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project website make for great postings and discussions.

Surviving Vicarious Trauma

While compassion fatigue refers to emotional duress and burnout, vicarious trauma is the experience of trauma symptoms that come from repeated exposure to the trauma and hearing stories of traumatic events from those in their care. Both compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma can occur in individuals providing care.

Learn more about vicarious trauma from Laurie Barkin, an author who previously worked in psychiatry for 22 years as a staff nurse, head nurse, educator, and psych liaison nurse. Laurie recounts her experiences with vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, and shares how she overcame that exposure in this CPI Podcast episode.