How CPDs can develop a self-care plan to prevent compassion fatigue and burnout

By Dr Michael Sorsdahl

Career development practitioners (CDPs) are helping professionals who get drawn into their line of work due to their desire to help others. Jacobson’s research[1] in 2012 demonstrated that helping professionals often have a tendency to put others’ needs ahead of their own, which puts the practitioner at risk of experiencing mental-health issues such as compassion fatigue or burnout.

Shannon et al.[2] in 2014 outlined the same risks in the helping professions, and conducted research specifically on social-work students to see what self-care strategies could help build resilience against those risks. According to Shannon et al. and Merriman (2015)[3], some of the most common mental-health issues that helping professionals such as CDPs face are vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout. The articles cited above along with Sansbury, Graves and Scott (2015)[4] found that if these issues are left unchecked, helping practitioners risk doing harm to clients instead of helping them. However, there are ways to build resilience and counter these mental-health issues; it just takes awareness and commitment by the practitioner.

Consider the safety brief on an airplane that tells people to put their own oxygen mask on first before helping others; this concept of self-protection is just as important for helpers to heed, or they risk mental-health issues. CDPs must be aware that burnout, compassion fatigue and other conditions are a common by-product of working in the helping field. This can have consequences not only for the helper, but also for their family and friends if they take these issues home. Exploring and implementing ways to increase resilience, and becoming more proactive in looking after oneself, will lessen the mental-health risks of working in a helping profession.

Understanding what to look for is an important first step in the proper response to and prevention of vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue, which can lead to complete burnout. Vicarious trauma looks very much like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma injury symptomology as laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. PTSD or trauma reactions may occur after exposure to a traumatic event (including hearing details about one), which can result in the existence of intrusive symptoms such as negative thoughts or behaviours, avoidance of traumatic triggers, changes in mood, changes in reactions and arousal, and feeling highly distressed.

Compassion fatigue is a little different, and includes the following symptoms:

  • Changes in personal identity and world view
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Becoming easily emotionally overwhelmed
  • Numbing or disconnection from any distressing feelings related to the event
  • Loss of connectedness to others and self
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulty connecting with joy

If these symptoms are left unchecked, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment may occur. Ultimately, the perceived demands of the job will outweigh the resources to do it, which may cause people to burn out and leave the helping profession.

Developing a self-care plan

Career development practitioners can build resilience by creating a workable and adaptable self-care plan that is designed for the specific helper. Shannon et al. (2014) along with Sansbury et al. (2015) have shown that this practice increases life satisfaction and can help practitioners build resilience to cope with stress.

When creating a self-care plan, consider that a good self-care strategy meets these three conditions: 1) specific enough to be implementable, 2) flexible enough to fit into your busy life, and 3) enjoyable.

Shannon et al. (2014) and Sansbury et al. (2015) have shown that the best self-care plans span multiple areas of people’s lives. If a CDP creates one or two strategies in each of the following areas, then the plan is likely robust enough to help build resilience.

Examples of self-care strategies include:

  • Physical care: exercise, nutrition, sleep, massages and walking
  • Mental care: meditation, listening to/playing music, cooking, reading
  • Relational care: date nights with partner, games night with friends, dinner with friends and telephone/Skype calls with friends/family
  • Physical environment care: keeping a clean home, spending time outdoors, taking vacations

It can be helpful to reflect on activities that you have found enjoyable, along with things you might like to try in the future. This will give you a database of options to work from. If the activity is not enjoyable, it is not self-care. There are healthy things that we “should” do, but that does not make them self-care strategies – just necessary actions for healthy living. Depending on the helper’s life circumstances, either more strategies or increased time doing selected strategies may be required to counter the negative symptoms outlined above.

Vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and burnout are a risk for helping professionals such as career development practitioners. If the CDP combines awareness of symptoms that indicate these conditions with a strong self-care plan, resilience to these stressors can be built. Making the helpers’ health a priority is essential to remaining competent in their work.

Assessing your need to review self-care strategies
  • Take a Quality of Life Assessment or wellness survey periodically to track dips
  • Journal regularly about your levels of stress
  • Review self-care strategies to see if you still enjoy them (if not, change them)
  • Ask a friend/family/co-worker to help identify any of your negative symptoms
  • Seek supervision in your work to debrief regularly

Dr. Michael Sorsdahl, CD, PhD(Education), RCC, CCC, GCDF-i, Provisional Psychologists (Alberta) is a psychotherapist, provisional psychologist, and educator who works in the areas of Trauma, Career, LGBTQ2+, Couples/Relationships, and counsellor education. He founded Juvenation Wellness, a counselling, coaching, and education service in BC.


[1] Jacobson, J.M. (2012). Risk of compassion fatigue and burnout and potential for compassion satisfaction among employee assistance professionals: Protecting the workforce. Traumatology, 18(3) 64-72). DOI: 10.1177/153476561 143 1833

[2] Shannon, P.J., Simmelink-McCleary, J., Im, H., Becher, E. & Crook-Lyon, R.E. (2014). Developing self-care practices in a trauma treatment course. Journal of Social Work Education, 50, 440-453

[3] Merriman, J. (2015). Enhancing counsellor supervision through compassion fatigue

education. Journal of Couseling & Development, 93(3), 370-378.

[4] Sansbury, B. S., Graves, K., & Scott W. (2015). Managing traumatic stress responses among clinicians: Individual and organizational tools for self-care. Trauma, 17(2), 114-122.