Compassion Fatigue Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

Something we see a lot at The Anti-Burnout Club is people suffering from compassion fatigue (sometimes known as secondary traumatic stress or vicarious trauma) and it’s unsurprising considering the majority of our members work in sectors most at risk of developing it. Compassion fatigue and burnout often go hand in hand, and we’ve seen a real rise in those experiencing both since the beginning of the pandemic.

In this guide, we’ll go through what compassion fatigue is, the symptoms, warning signs and risk factors, how it can be prevented, and different treatment options. This guide can be used for those experiencing compassion fatigue themselves or for managers and wellbeing leads who are worried about the mental health of their team.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

There’s a common misconception that compassion fatigue is burnout, especially as many of the signs and symptoms are similar. However, there are three components to compassion fatigue and burnout is just one of them. The others are secondary stress, mainly experienced in caregiving roles (see risk factors below), and compassion satisfaction which is the ‘positive payment’ that comes from caring. Those with high burnout, high secondary stress and low compassion satisfaction are those most likely to experience compassion fatigue.

A study published in the British Medical Journal before the pandemic found that around a third of GPs had high burnout, high secondary stress and low compassion satisfaction. Research is ongoing as to how these levels have changed over the last two years, but we can expect it to be much higher. In our conversations with the managers and wellbeing leads of organisations most at risk (NHS, charities, and so on), we know that there is a growing concern around each of the components of compassion fatigue. 

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms and Warning Signs

As burnout is a key component of compassion fatigue, many of the symptoms may seem similar. However, there are also some key warning signs that are specific to this condition. Here are some of the most common compassion fatigue symptoms:

  • Finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Drastic shifts in mood or irritability
  • Experiencing negative thoughts, or becoming more pessimistic
  • Feeling helpless or apathetic
  • Becoming withdrawn or detached from loved ones
  • Physical symptoms such as exhaustion, aches and pains, headaches, or changes in appetite
  • Low compassion satisfaction – finding less joy or reward in helping others
  • Other mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety
  • Needing to take time off work on a regular basis

If you recognise several of these signs or symptoms in yourself, or perhaps someone you know, then it may be compassion fatigue. We will now go through the common risk factors before sharing some tips on how to both prevent and treat compassion fatigue. However, if you recognise a lot of these symptoms and are worried about your mental health, please do speak to a medical professional about your concerns as soon as possible.

Compassion Fatigue Risk Factors

There are key groups of people who are more at risk of compassion fatigue and we’ll go into these risk factors shortly. However, know that anyone can experience secondary traumatic stress and you don’t necessarily have to fall into one of these groups.

Experts believe compassion fatigue may be becoming more widespread due to the way we consume news about the world, particularly in times of great distress. Constant news stories of tragedy and suffering can cause people to experience compassion fatigue and become desensitized. Those who find themselves stuck ‘doomscrolling’ may be more at risk than those who limit their news consumption.

Professions Most at Risk of Compassion Fatigue

Below are some of the professions more prone to compassion fatigue, but know that this list of risk factors is not exhaustive. As mentioned, if you are worried about symptoms then don’t discount them just because you’re not on this list.

  • Health professionals and health care workers
  • Mental health professionals and therapists
  • Emergency service workers (including police officers, firefighters, etc)
  • Charity workers and volunteers
  • Teachers and school staff
  • Veterinarians
  • Social workers
  • Carers – both paid and unpaid 
  • Prison staff 
  • Anyone who works in a helping or caregiving role

Other Risk Factors 

Just working in a particular role doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience compassion fatigue, and so these are some of the other potential factors that could put you at higher risk:

  • Being physically or mentally abused or threatened when providing care
  • Providing care in dangerous environments
  • Providing care for those experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts or grief
  • Heavy workloads, long hours or excessive demands in the work environment
  • Working on the scene of accidents or emergencies
  • Witnessing extreme levels of trauma or graphic evidence/images
  • Highly empathetic individuals who have an ongoing motivation to help those in need

Again, this list of risk factors is not exhaustive so please do speak to a medical professional if you are worried about symptoms even if you don’t fall within one of these groups.

How Can Compassion Fatigue Be Prevented?

There are ways to prevent compassion fatigue before it happens, both at a work environment level (for managers and wellbeing leads) and an individual level. As compassion fatigue may come on quite suddenly, it may be that you’re looking to treat rather than cure which we have also detailed below. 

Compassion Fatigue Prevention in Workplaces for Managers and Wellbeing Leads

Preventing compassion fatigue in the workplace is one of the most common requests we get from the managers and wellbeing leads we talk to, particularly those in high-risk sectors such as health care, those in social work and charities. Here are some key tools you can begin implementing for your team:

Conducting a Risk Assessment 

The first step to preventing compassion fatigue in the workplace is to conduct a risk assessment to be able to recognise any potential triggers. Using the risk factors above, consider how many of these elements can be found in your work environment. Conducting staff surveys and starting conversations around your team’s biggest concerns can help you put your risk assessment together too.

Reducing the Triggers

Once your risk assessment is complete, the top triggers should become the biggest priorities for your HR or wellbeing team. We know this is often easier said than done in situations where time constraints, staffing issues or budget are a concern, however. Score the triggers based on how important they are out of five (five being most important) and how easy they will be to achieve with your current resources out of five (five being the easiest). Start with the quick wins that score the highest on this scale.

Talks, Workshops and Training

Providing your teams with the skills they need for resilience and stress management is vital, and should be part of an ongoing wellbeing program to help prevent issues such as compassion fatigue, burnout, and poor mental health. In larger organisations, consider a train the trainer model for a quicker and more cost-effective approach.

We also provide talks and workshops to organisations both face-to-face and virtually; the latter being ideal to reach a larger group of people at once. You can learn more about our talks and workshops here.

Encourage Social Support

Now more than ever it’s vital to build strong, connected teams. Feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially if remote working, can make poor mental health worse. Consider work events and activities that bring teams together – and not just at the Christmas party! Small wellbeing groups are also effective for encouraging open and honest conversations, as well as providing more social support.

A Culture of Wellbeing

Finally, consider how you can create a culture of wellbeing for your organisation that becomes embedded. This means getting senior leaders on board, integrating wellness from day one for new employees, encouraging open and honest conversations around mental health, asking your teams what they need, and constantly monitoring and evaluating wellbeing strategies.

Compassion Fatigue Prevention for Individuals 

There are several strategies that individuals can use to help prevent compassion fatigue, but the key is to practise self-awareness so that you can spot any signs or symptoms before an issue arises. Being able to check in with your thoughts, feelings and emotions and notice any changes is a vital skill to learn – not just to help prevent compassion fatigue, but for other issues such as burnout too. Other prevention methods include:

  • Taking regular breaks and using up all available holiday time where possible. Discuss this with management if you feel as though you’re not able to do so
  • Discussing overwhelming or stressful workloads with managers to put a strategy in place to reduce them
  • Undertaking training in resilience or methods such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
  • Allowing yourself to set firm boundaries at work and for those you care for
  • Seeing a therapist or other mental health professional that can help you work through concerns
  • Focusing on the Five Foundations of Wellness to improve overall wellbeing and practise self-care. These include The Basics (nutrition and sleep), Physical Health (movement and exercise), Connection (social connections and mindfulness), Mental Wellbeing (therapeutic practices), and Growth (learning and self-development. You can take our free Five Days to Better Wellbeing email course here to learn and develop each of these areas.

Compassion Fatigue Treatment 

It may be that you are already experiencing compassion fatigue and instead of prevention, you’re looking to treat it. If so, we highly recommend that you speak to a medical professional who can help get you the right support that you need. You may also want to talk to your Occupational Health or HR team if available.

It may be that you need some time off work in order to be able to recover fully, and you may want to use this time to focus on your overall wellbeing or to learn more about how to prevent compassion fatigue in the future. Our tips in prevention will hopefully help in that respect.

In some cases, you may also need the help of a qualified mental health professional and perhaps therapy to work through some of the causes of your compassion fatigue. Consider also undertaking training in resilience or MBSR if you think it may help, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself if you’re signed off work and trying to recover.

What’s important is that you take the time you need to recover first, then consider how you may be able to prevent compassion fatigue from returning in the future.