How to Recognize Compassion Fatigue

If you’ve felt irritable, down, or unmotivated, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. If you look at your social media feed and feel stressed or exhausted afterwards, you might be experiencing compassion fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is not new. But during this time of global pandemic and social revolution, its affecting many more of us without us even realizing it.

Here we’ll explore compassion fatigue at the workplace, and at home. We’ll also take a closer look at why and how employers should be in tune to compassion fatigue in the workplace. Check out our interview with local expert, Merritt Moore for even more.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is concept that can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in individuals who take on caregiver roles for others. Compassion fatigue is most associated with employees in social work or medical fields who are repeatedly exposed to other’s traumatic experiences. But compassion fatigue can affect anyone, in many different roles, and even outside of the workplace. Simply hearing others’ trauma or painful stories can take its toll on us.

“Compassion fatigue is a set of symptoms, not a disease,” – Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project

Common Symptoms:
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Isolating from friends family
  • Can’t remember last time you did something fun
  • Lack of non-work interests or friendships
  • Losing interest in things that were once pleasurable
  • Feelings of depression
  • Irritability
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss
  • Feelings of inequity in your relationships
  • Feelings of self-contempt

There are several symptoms, and many can overlap with those of secondary traumatic stress, PTSD, depression or other nuanced mental illnesses. The key is to catch the symptoms early and seek the appropriate help. Sharing your symptoms with a professional is always best. Do not rely on self-diagnosis.

Why is Compassion Fatigue important to recognize?

Compassion Fatigue is possible to identify and manage. However, if left unchecked it can easily lead to burnout and secondary trauma. Prolonged effects of compassion fatigue can also increase stress on your body affecting your immune system, blood pressure, and more.

Am I subject to compassion fatigue?

At Work

While compassion fatigue is often associated with employees who work in primary care, there is potential for so many occupations to be affected. Consider a hair stylist, or a receptionist. While neither of these occupations are considered social work, these employees are likely to experience their clients’ pains secondhand. The hairdresser may hear the latest woes of several clients back to back, becoming a makeshift therapist. The receptionist may take in the stories, and also the body language of people who don’t want to be that waiting room but must because of illness, or financial issues for example.

You may not classify your work as caregiving, but take a moment to consider the types of interactions you’ve had a work recently with clients and coworkers. Are you carrying their trauma with you?

At Home

Perhaps you are expressing symptoms of compassion fatigue while on the job, but feel like your work interactions don’t fit the bill as the cause. There may be factors outside of work to consider. Here are a couple possibilities that may resonate with you:

Social Media – It has its ups and downs right? But every time you scroll your newsfeed, you expose yourself to possibly hundreds of personal or news related stories you may have never known about otherwise. While research shows we can get a little dopamine rush from “liking” or “loving” a post, we can just as easily trigger our stress hormones when we see an inflammatory or traumatic post.

It’s wonderful to see pictures of your friend’s new baby from across the country, but did you also see posts about Sally struggling to find work, Jim unable to visit his mother quarantined in a nursing home, and your neighbors who are mourning the loss of their family pet? These stories add up, and can have an affect on your well-being.

Personal Relationships – You may not be care taking professionally, yet find yourself being the primary caretaker of someone close to you. Caring for an elderly or ill family member is an easy example to understand. However, consider this: are you frequently answering the phone when your friends call in distress? Are you regularly hearing the stories from your friend’s dysfunctional marriage, or coming to the rescue of a friend who continues to get in sticky situations? This counts too.

“We really need to be in touch with our body, with our mind, and our spirit so we can take steps to reduce the impact [of compassion fatigue] so that we can continue to do the work to help others.” – Merritt Moore, Statewide PATH Contact

The Flip Side: Compassion Satisfaction

The possibility of compassion fatigue shouldn’t scare us away from being loving, empathetic people. In fact, many of us thrive in caregiver roles, and play a crucial role in our society. Yet, it is important to recognize the risk and the symptoms so we may check in on ourselves regularly. We may find we need to set more personal boundaries, honor time to care for only ourselves, or take breaks from the relationships or situations threatening to cause fatigue. By doing so, we may more often tap in to that feeling where we thrive: Compassion Satisfaction. Simply, the positive feelings we experience from helping, giving, and caring for others – at work, at home, and in ways big and small.

What’s An Employer’s Role at the Workplace?

If you’re not an employer but have read this far, you may want to share some information on compassion fatigue with your supervisor. There are several ways employers can reduce compassion fatigue at work, and promote workplace wellness.

Workplace Wellness Strategies to Mitigate Compassion Fatigue:
  • Encourage breaks at work to decompress – walk, meditate
  • Check on your employees regularly – how are you, how is your work load?
  • Make employees aware of the warning signs of compassion fatigue – posters, presentations
  • Limit overtime
  • Encourage use of paid time off and vacations – and ask yourself if you think your workplace offers sufficient PTO
  • Debrief regularly – particularly if your workplace has several caregiver roles
  • Establish a Workplace Wellness Program at your workplace – Active SWV offers free guidance and tech support!

Contact Workplace Wellness Director Veronica Crosier at [email protected] to learn more about the free workplace wellness technical and strategic support Active SWV offers to workplaces in Nicholas, Summers, Fayette, and Raleigh Counties.

Additional Resources:

For virtual or in person presentations you may contact Merritt Moore at:

Merritt Moore, MA, LPC, AADC
Health & Human Resources Specialist, Senior
Statewide PATH Contact
Bureau for Behavioral Health, DHHR
email: [email protected]
cell: 304-951-8104

You may also find access to research and services here:

Charles Figley, Figley Institute, www.figleyinstitute.com

Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, www.campassionfatigue.org

Dr. Gentry, Forward-Facting Trauma Therapy Services, www.forward-facing.com

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