Compassion Strengths

Workshops, consultations, education and support for care givers.

Compassion Fatigue

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue has been defined by Boscarino, Figley and Adams* as: "the reduced capacity or interest in being empathic or bearing the suffering of clients and is the natural consequent emotions and behaviors that arise from knowing about traumatizing events."
Caring for other people is part of human nature, but sometimes caring comes at a price. Even if we aren't the victims of direct trauma ourselves, we can mirror and internalize it through our empathy for others who are suffering as well as secondary exposure from the television, internet and other forms of media.

                            Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue is emotional, physical and psychological exhaustion experienced by those who help others. It is the result of accumulated stress and trauma. It can have rapid onset and leads to diminished capacity to function personally as well as professionally. It's the result of caring for people who have suffered or are suffering from trauma without attending to our own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Left untreated and unmanaged, compassion fatigue can lead to debilitating symptoms  including nightmares, intrusive feelings and images, diminished sense of safety, poor self-care, apathy and others.

Who Does Compassion Fatigue Affect?

Compassion Fatigue has commonly been diagnosed among social workerspsychologists, nurses and doctors who work with the traumatized.  But it's beginning to be recognized among anyone who works closely in a helping capacity with people who are  suffering from severe or chronic physical or mental illness, or have been victims of abuse, neglect or violence, such as: fire fighters, police officers
lawyers, judges, teachers, and clergy.

In a recent article published in
Psychology Today it is estimated "that “86.9% of emergency response personnel reported symptoms after exposure to highly distressing events with traumatized people” . . . [and]    “90% of new physicians, between 30 to 39 years old, say that their family life has suffered as a result of their work”. When health care professionals struggle with their responses to the trauma suffered by their patients, their mental health, relationships, effectiveness at work, and their physical health can suffer.

Family caregivers who are caring for elderly or disabled family members are especially susceptible to compassion fatigue. Waching a loved one suffer and feeling responsible for their care and well-being can push family caregivers to giver more than they are able resulting in exhaustion and burnout. 

In today's rapidly changing, interconnected, media driven world compassion fatigue increasingly affects the rest of society through constant exposure to the sounds of suffering, the images of trauma, or the threats of war and terrorism. It is literally the "Dis-ease of the 21st Century". The hallmark of Compassion Fatigue is the feeling of going “numb” inside, disconnecting from feelings and chronic fatigue. It is literally being “tired from caring,” and “tired of caring.”

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue

“There is a soul weariness that comes with caring. From daily doing business with the handiwork of fear. Sometimes it lives at the edges of one’s life, brushing against hope and barely making its presence known. At other times, it comes crashing in, overtaking one with its vivid images of another’s terror with its profound demands for attention; nightmares, strange fears, and generalized helplessness”

 - B. Hudnal Stamm: Secondary Traumatic Stress

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Intrusive thoughts/images
  • Depression (hopelessness, helplessness)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increase in illness and absenteeism
  • Decrease in work satisfaction
  • Not feeling effective as a helper; loss of purpose, meaning
  • Feeling burdened by client problems
  • Preoccupation with client stories/issues
  • Psychosomatic symptoms (chest pains, muscle tension, gastrointestinal distress, headaches)
  • Increased irritability with others, ourselves
  • Low tolerance for others’ problems/emotions
  • Physically drained
  • Decrease in hobbies/activities
  • Increased isolation from others
  • Feeling “numb” or emotionally disconnected
  • Hypervigilance, hyperarousal
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty relaxing, sleeping, unwinding
  • Increase in substance use
  • Engaging in compulsive behaviours (food, sex, exercise, internet)
The Ethics of Professional Self-Care: (NASW Policy Statement) 

Professional self-care is vital to the profession of social work for several reasons:

ü  Professional self-care is an essential component in competent, compassionate, and ethical social work practice, requiring time, energy, and commitment.

ü  Promoting the practice of professional self-care in social work explicitly acknowledges the challenging and often overwhelming nature of our work.

ü  Professional self-care places emphasis on primary prevention of these unwanted conditions and implies that tools and strategies should be part of one’s overall professional self-care plan.

ü  Professional self-care in social work is critical to maintaining ethical and professional behavior and providing competent services to clients across diverse settings.  Although the practice of professional self-care applies to all social workers, it is especially critical for social workers providing care to traumatized populations.

ü  Acknowledging professional self-care in social work is an important first step in preserving the integrity of social workers and in retaining valued professionals in the profession. Actively preparing social workers to effectively face these conditions will support social workers in maintaining their commitment to the profession.

Further Reading:

Compassion Fatigue: Being an Ethical Social Worker

Reflecting on the Concept of Compassion Fatigue

Countering Compassion Fatigue: A Requisite Nursing Agenda

Compassion Fatigue: A Nurse's Primer

Transforming Compassion Fatigue: 12 Self-Help Tips for Care Givers

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