By Laurie Cure, Ph.D.

As the world continues to face the evolving challenges of our times, hospitals, healthcare workers, teachers, parents and many others are feeling the heavy weight of burnout and compassion fatigue. 

Our work right now is overwhelming as we see shifts from in person to remote learning, higher caseloads in our healthcare system and unprecedented emotional distress amongst our employees. Many of us are barely hanging on from day to day. Recognizing and addressing the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue versus burnout can ensure you and your teams remain healthy and stable. 

While we often use the two terms interchangeably as they can show similar symptoms, there is a difference between the two. Burnout is considered reactional and usually occurs gradually over the course of time. It has long been a risk factor, specifically amongst healthcare providers, in environments with high workloads, worker shortages, significant work stress and challenging political and/or regulatory requirements. Untreated burnout leaves one feeling depressed, cynical, and isolated with a deep desire to withdraw and leave one's profession. 

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, has a sudden onset and results from exposure to suffering and taking on the pain of others. For many professions, COVID-19 has created the perfect storm for the emergence of deep, pervasive levels of compassion fatigue. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen states, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk on water without getting wet.” 

The very nature of caring creates depletion and fatigue. As we all seek to manage a situation that has caused significant life changes and suffering all around us, we must be able to effectively manage compassion fatigue. 

 

Here are starting tips to address you and your organization’s risk of compassion fatigue: 

1. Reflect on where you are and what you need. 

Take a self-assessment to determine your level of compassion satisfaction, burnout and secondary trauma. The Professional Quality of Life Scale offers a quick assessment that can be a great starting point to understanding your risk and current state. 

2. Set healthy boundaries. 

The pandemic has torn apart previously determined boundaries, but it’s time to set new ones. When working long hours, taking on additional responsibilities or pulling extra shifts seems like the only option, assess and prioritize your level of fatigue and the alternatives available to you. Ask yourself what your priorities are and build your boundaries around them. 

3. Engage in self-care. 

This is easier said than done, but also one of the most important steps you can take to guard against compassion fatigue. Ensure you are eating and sleeping well. Plan your meals so the busyness of the day does not overwhelm you. Ensure you are taking uninterrupted breaks to decompress. Rediscover activities that bring you energy and engage more deliberately in them. 

The most important part of self-care when you are experiencing compassion fatigue is self-compassion. You are doing the best you can right now, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Release you guilt and continue moving forward. 

4. Seek out support. 

The natural tendency with compassion fatigue is to isolate and withdraw. Actively resist this urge and find time to speak with friends and family. During traumatic events, we always recommend debriefs and this is one big trauma. Seek out your pastor, counselor or a leadership coach to assist. 

5. Invest in your team. 

Offering space for reflection, venting, tears and just being human has never been more important for organizations hoping to avoid compassion fatigue among their teams. An important foundation is to build resilience before the crisis hits in order to create more nurturing environments for your team. 

 

Leaders are in charge of changing systems to better manage fatigue and burnout. This might include ensuring adequate coverage so staff can take breaks or manage the workload in different ways. Remember that recognition can go a long way to prevent fatigue as well. By supporting better structures you can help mitigate the risk of not only burnout, but turnover in your best teams. 

If you aren’t sure where to start, we offer leadership development services including assessment, coaching, and signature programs for transformational learning. Learn more here

Compassion fatigue and burnout are often the result of too much of a good thing. If you are feeling value and satisfaction in your work, continue seeking ways to build on your values and find what is most important in your work. With the right mindset and support system, we can overcome feelings of compassion fatigue and burnout.