By Emily Becher and Emily Krekelberg; adapted by Sara Croymans
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue (or compassion stress) can be referred to as the cost of caring and describes when someone experiences higher levels of stress because they care deeply and, the people they are caring for are going through a highly stressful experience or series of experiences.
Compassion fatigue is considered to be one type of several empathy-based responses to stress that also include secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. Over time, if unaddressed, compassion stress can lead to compassion fatigue and can look like this:
- A loss of compassion/empathy can lead to poor judgment
- Unexplained or unexpected ongoing negative feelings like:
- loss of meaning and hope
- Physical symptoms like:
- stomach issues
- high blood pressure
- problems sleeping
- Problematic behaviors like:
- performing poorly at work
- increased use of alcohol and substances
- conflict in close relationships and/or isolating yourself from loved ones
How can we help prevent compassion fatigue?
The most impactful way to prevent compassion fatigue is to consider if you have the resources you need to address the demands placed upon you.
Reduce your stress
If it is at work, is there a balanced workload between yourself and others? If it is at home, are there ways you can allocate some of your caregiving burden to others? Being responsible for too many things at once and not having enough time off to take care of ourselves can put us at risk for compassion fatigue.
Increase your skills
Research indicates that when someone feels less competent in what they’re doing, it increases their risk for compassion fatigue. Is there training or support you could access to help feel more competent and skilled in the context you are working in?
Take care of yourself
People who exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, have ways to relax and have fun, and have positive relationships with others are at reduced risk of compassion fatigue. Are there small steps you can take each day to make sure that you are “paying it forward” to your future self?
Supportive workplaces, supervisors, coworkers, and support groups with others who are experiencing similar things, can all be helpful in preventing compassion fatigue. Are there ways for you to advocate for more support if you are in a workplace? Are there ways for you to connect with others experiencing similar things? If a support group doesn’t currently exist on the topic, can you start one? If you’re looking for someplace to start, check out these resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):
If you feel that you are struggling with compassion fatigue, what should you do?
The first to know is that what you’re feeling is normal.
A great first step is to talk to your health care provider who can discuss your concerns and what the next steps might be. If you’re unsure if you are struggling with compassion fatigue one approach is to take a validated self-assessment like the ProQOL (Professional Quality of Life). This free assessment tool is available in several languages and measures three areas: 1) compassion satisfaction, 2) burnout, and 3) compassion fatigue. It is the measure recommended by the Veterans Administration. Take your assessment results to your next health care appointment to discuss with your provider.
Our OneOp Military Caregiving and Family Development colleagues offer an archived webinar on Caregiver Compassion Fatigue and a blog post on Battling Burnout: Practices to Overcome Therapist Compassion Fatigue.
In addition, Military OneSource provides additional recommendations on How to Deal With Stress as a Caregiver.
Health Resources and Services Administration. Compassion Fatigue. https://www.hrsa.gov/behavioral-health/compassion-fatigue
Rauvola, R.S., Vega, D.M. & Lavigne, K.N. Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress, and Vicarious Traumatization: a Qualitative Review and Research Agenda. Occup Health Sci 3, 297–336 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41542-019-00045-1
Sinclair, S., Raffin-Bouchal, S., Venturato, L., Mijovic-Kondejewski, J., & Smith-MacDonald, L. (2017). Compassion fatigue: A meta-narrative review of the healthcare literature. International journal of nursing studies, 69, 9-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2017.01.003.
Singh, J.; Karanika-Murray, M.; Baguley, T.; Hudson, J. A Systematic Review of Job Demands and Resources Associated with Compassion Fatigue in Mental Health Professionals. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 6987. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17196987.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. National Center for PTSD. Provider Self Care Toolkit. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/care/toolkits/provider/index.asp.
Emily Becher is an Applied Research and Evaluation Specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development. Emily has a background in couple and family therapy and trauma-informed adult education.
Emily Krekelberg works for University of Minnesota Extension as the Extension Educator for Farm Safety & Health. Her work focuses on grain bin safety, livestock safety, tractor safety, farmer mental health, and suicide prevention. A passion of Emily’s is weaving together the science of production agriculture with the art of building resilience.
Sara Croymans is a OneOp Family Transitions team member, military spouse and mother, and an Extension Educator with the University of Minnesota Extension. OneOp Family Transitions provides education, resources, and networking opportunities for service providers working with military families to build resilience and navigate life cycle transitions. Engage with the OneOp Family Transitions team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.