What is Compassion Fatigue?

Have you ever experienced feelings of hopelessness, overwhelm or difficulties in dealing with work or in doing your job effectively? Perhaps you’ve even shifted your view of your surroundings and the world at large through a lens of fear, or felt difficulty separating career and personal life. These phenomena can be linked to “compassion fatigue”, an emotional and physical state of exhaustion experienced by those caring for others.

Dr. Charles Figley, a university professor and leading expert in the area of compassion fatigue, coined the term and has dedicated his life’s work on the subject, following his volunteer term with wounded soldiers during the Vietnam war. He has even described the experience as the “cost of caring”. Dr. Figley’s work has linked compassion fatigue to acute stress, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), secondary traumatic stress, burnout and vicarious trauma. However, compassion fatigue has also been tied to more positive experiences, such as resilience, post-traumatic growth, and its inverse, compassion satisfaction.

Compassion satisfaction refers to the pleasure derived from being able to do your work well. When exposed to high levels of stress over time, one may experience a progressive loss of idealism and a draining of energy (i.e., burnout). Ironically, compassion fatigue causes professionals in a helping role a diminishing of their empathy and compassion for others, along with a plethora of other possible symptoms, such as a decrease in quality care for patients, an increase in clinical errors, increased rates of depression and anxiety, absenteeism, and desensitization to patient experiences. Furthermore, compassion fatigue does not just leave the caregiver impacted while in the workplace, but also results in impacts to their personal life, such as disconnect from loved ones, social isolation, increased use of drugs or alcohol, increased rates of stress-related illnesses, apathy, etc.

Compassion fatigue is most common in support occupational and volunteer roles, such as nursing, social work, psychology, first responder’s, and also often seen among individuals who provide care to friends or family suffering from a health condition, disability, or problems associated with aging. According to Statistics Canada (2012), nearly three in ten people are family caregivers, and we can expect to see that number rise as the baby boomer generation continues to age. For those who provide caring in both their occupations and in their personal lives, the risk of compassion fatigue exponentially increases.

Part 2 coming next month, will address how to combat Compassion Fatigue.

Nicole Pesta
Registered Provisional Psychologist
Calgary Career Counselling
Synthesis Psychology