CompasSion fatigue: Not well known, but happens often

Emotionally drained. Carrying work problems home. Being short and angry. Worrying about a person and their well being. Not being able to check your emotions at the door.

Those are some things that someone may be experiencing who works in social services, humanitarianism, health services and even in animal shelters.

Those things, among others are symptoms of something called compassion fatigue, and people may not be aware they are experiencing it.

Compassion fatigue is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers, according to Stephanie G. King, adult psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner among others, in behavioral health, at Susquehanna Health, Divine Providence Hospital, who sited this demnition from studies in an email interview.

She said that it is not the same as burnout, because compassion fatigue is directly related to caregiving professions or those in a helping role.

“One way to differentiate between the two can sometimes be job satisfaction and enjoyment. Often, professionals who love their job and are deeply compassionate are at risk for compassion fatigue from their caregiving roles, where those with high levels of job dissatisfaction are more at risk for burnout,” King said.

King said some examples of individuals who might experience compassion fatigue could include people (including family members) caring for elderly or sick family members, doctors, nurses, clergy, teachers, behavioral health workers, first responders, fire fighters, EMS, police officers and social workers.

“Professionals in the behavioral health field are at an especially high risk of compassion fatigue,” she said.

King said warning signs are increased irritability, sleep disturbances, substance abuse and depression.

“Symptoms can resemble … post-traumatic stress disorder and compassion fatigue has sometimes been referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS),” she said. “Caregivers suffering from compassion fatigue often complain of feeling hopeless or discouraged, becoming cynical about their workplace, finding it difficult to leave work at the end of the day, and having recurrent thoughts of a particular patient or case.”

Work performance and personal relationships can be affected by compassion fatigue.

“Compassion fatigue can often affect a person’s cognitive, emotional, behavioral, spiritual and physical well being,” she said.

King recommends a holistic approach to managing compassion fatigue and improving resiliency.

Other strategies for preventing compassion fatigue include taking regular breaks, changing workloads, working part-time and accessing resiliency training.

“This involves prevention as well as a holistic approach that considers the physical, spiritual, and mental needs of the caregiver. Support networks that center on self-care and relationship building may prove useful in treating compassion fatigue and burnout,” she said.

Workplaces where employees experience high levels of caregiving should consider offering resiliency and stress management training to their employees.

There are several programs that focus on compassion fatigue resiliency that have shown significant results in reducing levels of stress and burnout. These programs focus on intentionality, self-regulation, self-validation, connection and self-care.