Are You at Risk for Compassion Fatigue?

Professionals who work with people through trauma experience a different form of burnout.
Insight Timer is the top free meditation app on iOS and Android.
Insight Timer is the top free meditation app on iOS and Android.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

“Compassion satisfaction” is the joy we get from being of service. This rewarding sense of purpose is what drives many toward occupations centered on helping others. But regular exposure to another’s trauma can wear us down if we’re simultaneously overworked or underappreciated.

“Compassion fatigue” is a particular type of burnout that results from long-term, consistent exposure to traumatized individuals. Compassion fatigue prevents helpers from being effective in their line of work and may even cause them to avoid situations where they are most needed. Unattended, it can lead to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression or PTSD.

Professions Most at Risk

It’s not only medical professionals and first responders who exhibit the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue: 

  • Lawyers who help individuals recover from severe personal loss, crime or injustice
  • Charity Workers helping direct funds and services to suffering individuals 
  • Social Workers in close daily contact with those recovering from pain, loss and hardship
  • Community Activists who see the consequences of poverty and structural inequality
  • Foreign Service Professionals exposed to the consequences of war and human displacement
  • Veterinarians exposed daily to illness, death and inhumane treatment of animals
  • Hospice Workers who witness first-hand the pain of families losing loved ones
  • HR Professionals on the front lines of responding to the stress of workers
  • Government Workers involved in helping people access aid and relief packages

How to Heal

Healing from compassion fatigue includes addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual causes:

1. Understand Healthy Empathy

Taking on the pain of others is a disordered form of empathy. Healthy empathy allows us to react compassionately to the pain of others without taking it on ourselves. A regular meditation practice can help us differentiate between disordered and healthy empathy.  

2. Connect with Others

Close relationships with colleagues relieves stress by reminding us we’re never alone. The Journal of the American Veterinary Association recommends creating a ‘moral climate’ at work in which employees feel safe to discuss moral dilemmas and share uncomfortable feelings. 

3. Practice “Purification Rituals”

Cleansing habits, as simple as having clothes only for work, or washing your face with cold water at the end of the day, help to create boundaries between work life and home life. Intentionally mourning with colleagues or individually with a releasing meditation practice can also increase our sense of purpose, and assist us with mindful acceptance.   

Read more about rituals that help us to mindfully switch between work and other activities.

4. Build Resilience Through Self Care

Eating well, sleeping well and exercising form the foundation of effective self-care practices. Daily meditation and other forms of mindful rest build resilience further by strengthening awareness, gratitude, compassion and wisdom. 

5. Expand Your Capacity for Compassion

Compassion, like any virtue, is strengthened with practice. Loving-kindness practices open our hearts and soften the sense of separation that keeps us from an authentic experience of empathy. 

There’s no limit to our capacity to care for others. But to open our hearts without exhausting our souls, we need appropriate internal and external support.

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