Prevention starts with knowing the risks and triggers for helping professionals

Jo-Ann Trudeau

Author headshotCompassion fatigue is now widely recognized as an occupational hazard for those careers that are dubbed “the helping professions,” such as nurses, police officers and lawyers. People working in career development, such as employment counsellors and vocational rehabilitation professionals, are also part of this group. Job title notwithstanding, compassion fatigue is a risk for professionals whose jobs require empathizing with another person requiring help, in order to provide competent and effective care.

By developing awareness of what compassion fatigue is, how it happens and strategies to prevent it, career professionals can instead strive for compassion satisfaction at work. 

What compassion fatigue is – and what it’s not

Compassion fatigue is sometimes confused with burnout. These conditions share some symptoms and can co-exist but are not the same. Burnout is the physical and emotional exhaustion that a worker experiences when they have low job satisfaction and feel powerless and overwhelmed at work. Individuals who are experiencing burnout might feel drained, hopeless or resentful, and experience lower levels of motivation. Being burned out does not mean that you have lost the capacity to feel compassion for others. Changing jobs – as many people chose to do during the Great Resignation – can provide relief from work-related burnout.

Compassion fatigue develops over time and is described in many ways. Recognizable symptoms include feeling reduced compassion and sensitivity in the face of clients’ pain. People with compassion fatigue may also experience increased anxiety, anger and irritability; cognitive concerns such as decreased concentration and decision-making; sleep issues; and physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea and dizziness. Some people may neglect their own self-care, withdraw from friends and family and increase substance use as a form of self-medication.

In fact, more precisely, compassion fatigue is secondary traumatic stress disorder (STS). This is a form of post-traumatic stress, also called vicarious trauma, that is brought on by indirect or secondary exposure to stressful or traumatic events. While we do not experience the events clients are sharing with us, hearing their stories can still have an impact.

Read more on trauma from Careering and CareerWise

How to help your clients navigate the trauma of racism in the workplace

Working toward trauma-informed career development organizations

Practical steps to provide trauma-informed career development

Compassion fatigue triggers

Compassion fatigue can be brought on by a stressful workplace or environment, lack of resources, excessive hours or even workplace culture. What does a CF trigger look like? To name a few, this can include:

With an accumulation of these experiences, your thoughts, mood and well-being negatively change. Being affected by your work is a normal part of a work day; however, when it starts to overwhelm you, you may be feeling compassion fatigue.

Risk factors

People who are most susceptible to CF usually lack a support network outside of work, have a personal history of loss or trauma, are perfectionists and have difficulty dealing with their emotions. The emerging psychological research behind perfectionism suggests that it is a coping mechanism and a sign of trauma exposure that results in much anxiety. The evidence points to protecting oneself against the distress of being perceived as a failure, as perfectionists’ self-worth is based on success and achievement. Unfortunately, trauma can lead to self-judgment and judgment of others, social isolation, stress and negative self-talk. The personal characteristic of perfectionism requires greater research attention on account of it exacerbating the risk of compassion fatigue.

Responses to these feelings can cycle from self-blame and feeling you have neglected your professional standards, to blaming others for errors, to overworking. These are common reactions and there are methods of prevention to heal and maintain balance.

Prevention is the best medicine

The ABCs of compassion fatigue prevention are:

  • Awareness: Consider times when you were annoyed or wound up at work. Ask yourself, what was the trigger?
  • Balance: Practise work-life balance. Do I make time for things that I enjoy? Do I set boundaries between work and home?
  • Connection: Who in my network can I vent to or discuss work challenges with? (e.g. friends, family, colleagues, spiritual mentors)

Answering these questions can help you determine your potential risk factors for compassion fatigue and take preventive action to maintain your well-being.

Adopting self-care routines, including proper sleep, exercise and nutrition as well as practising mindfulness, are also good preventive practices. You may find it beneficial to work with a psychologist or counsellor to develop positive coping strategies and process challenging feelings about your work situation. Above all, learn to have self-compassion and treat yourself with the care and concern you would a friend, sibling or parent.

Two women talking in office
Getting to compassion satisfaction

Compassion fatigue is one dimension of professional quality of life; the other dimension is compassion satisfaction (CS). Professional quality of life describes the negative (CF) and positive (CS) psychological outcomes of working. CS works as a protective factor and refers to the pleasure and benefits of working (and is not exclusive to helping professionals). These include feeling valued, having a sense of belonging in the workplace, having self-efficacy in the ability to make a difference in the workplace and achieving personal goals.

From a workplace perspective, employers can try to prevent compassion fatigue by encouraging work autonomy, providing role clarity, offering mental health days and creating a safe space to share challenges and successes and openly discuss CF. Employers can also give employees the opportunity to attend training regularly (skill training specific to job or training on how to deal with trauma), and encourage them to ask for help with their workload and overall wellness. Look at it as an antidote to CF as well as burnout.

Remember, compassion fatigue is a normal, human reaction to witnessing another person’s pain. Having a compassionate organizational culture increases compassion satisfaction, resetting the boundary between the professional and personal, and allowing helping professionals to return to work engaged, caring and healthy.

Jo-Ann Trudeau is a sought-after expert, speaker and practitioner of return to work/disability management and vocational rehabilitation. She is currently on a second master of art, this time in counselling psychology and holds a human resources management diploma and is a Certified Vocational Rehabilitation Specialist.