Healthcare practitioners are vulnerable to compassion fatigue, from physiotherapists and doctors to psychologists and nurses. Research suggests that compassion fatigue affects up to 40% of workers in intensive care settings and up to 70% of inexperienced mental health professionals. There’s a correlation between compassion fatigue and healthcare professionals who continually work with people suffering from trauma, such as professionals working in oncology, hospice, emergency, and paediatric settings.
The high prevalence of compassion fatigue means that it’s an important topic for any health practice, so it’s essential to understand what it is, the signs and symptoms to watch for, and what you can do in your practice to protect yourself and your team.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue, also referred to as second-hand shock, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress or a secondary stress reaction, is linked to the type of work one does, impacting those that work in a helping or healing capacity. Healthcare workers may be affected by compassion fatigue through their patients, and therapists are particularly at risk.
Compassion fatigue can be triggered by providing care:
- To a patient with severe conditions
- In a dangerous environment
- When under stress, working long hours with a demanding caseload
- In a traumatic environment, such as an accident scene
- To a patient who is grieving the loss of a child
- To a patient with depression or suicidal ideation
- And being physically or verbally threatened
When these triggers start affecting your life at work and outside work, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. The symptoms of compassion fatigue may increase slowly, and there are a number of preventative measures you can take so that it doesn’t progress further.
Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout
One of the main differences between burnout and compassion fatigue is their origin. Compassion fatigue is triggered by secondary exposure to traumatic events through patient interaction, whereas burnout is triggered by a stressful work environment and being overworked.
Burnout (also known as occupation burnout) is a psychological term that refers to general exhaustion and lack of motivation or interest in one’s work. It’s common in many different work environments with sustained pressure and long working hours.
In contrast, compassion fatigue occurs most often in helping professions, such as first responders (firefighters, police officers and social workers) and healthcare workers (doctors, nurses and psychologists).
Compassion fatigue has two parts:
- Burnout, feelings of hopelessness
- Secondary traumatic stress, with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder
Signs and Symptoms: How to Spot Compassion Fatigue
Whether you’re monitoring your own levels of compassion fatigue and burnout or those of your team, there are a number of personal and workplace symptoms to watch for, according to Resilient Retreat.
- Physical: headaches, fatigue, digestive issues, difficulty sleeping, nightmares
- Emotional: anxious, stressed, depressed
- Behavioural: hypervigilance, heightened irritability
- Spiritual: loss of purpose, disillusionment
- Cognitive: difficulty concentrating, increased pessimism, inattention, intrusive thoughts
- Relational: withdrawing from friends and family
- Performance: low motivation, decreased work quality
- Morale: low confidence, increased apathy
- Relational: withdrawn from colleagues, increased irritability
- Behavioural: last minute sick-days, often late for work
To assess your state of mind, AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) offers a Self-Assessment for Compassion Fatigue as well as a list of red flags to watch for: Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue.
How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue
1. Educate Yourself
It’s common for healthcare professionals to feel overwhelmed by their work, but if you know what signs and symptoms to watch for, you can take steps to prevent compassion fatigue. This is something you’ll need to do for yourself, as well as for your team.
2. Practice Self-Care
A recent Power Diary article covered 9 practical strategies to help you stay positive in tough times. Where ‘self-care’ tends to conjure up images of bubble baths, the reality is that there’s a lot more you can do daily to keep compassion fatigue at bay.
Self-care strategies to put in place today include:
- Practising positive thinking, mindfulness and gratitude
- Planning holidays throughout the year
- Monitoring how much you sleep and exercise and what you eat
- Meeting up with friends
- Balancing work and leisure time
- Developing hobbies
3. Set Firm Emotional Boundaries
While empathy and compassion are necessary for your work, if you’re exposed to too much stress and trauma, you may feel overwhelmed. If you don’t have emotional boundaries, this can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. Some healthcare professionals struggle with setting boundaries and may need to see a counsellor to help with this.
4. Get Professional Help
If you struggle with feeling overwhelmed, getting help from a therapist, psychologist, or mental health professional who has trauma experience may be the most effective way to prevent compassion fatigue.
Tips for Preventing Compassion Fatigue in Your Practice
There are a number of workplace strategies that can help prevent compassion fatigue. To ensure that your practice is set up for long-term success, you can focus on helping yourself, and your team manage energy reserves by:
- Offering mental health days
- Providing access to onsite counselling
- Implementing regular scheduled breaks throughout the day
- Scheduling open group discussions about compassion fatigue
- Conducting individual check-ins with team members
- Clarifying expectations and setting boundaries
- Building a great team
- Putting time-saving business systems in place (such as EMR software)
As a practice owner, you need to lead from the front, but you can’t pour from an empty cup. You can prevent compassion fatigue and support your team members who may be struggling by proactively monitoring for the common signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue both in yourself and your team.
To keep your team on track and ensure that you’re not missing anything, open communication channels in the practice are essential so that your team knows what compassion fatigue is, and that they can come to you if they find that their work is affecting them negatively.
Note: This article is not medical advice, nor should it be considered a solution for anxiety, depression or compassion fatigue. It is aimed at offering information on what compassion fatigue is and what to watch for. Please seek out the services of a mental health professional if you or one of your team are struggling with compassion fatigue.