Compassion fatigue

Healthcare clinicians and service/support workers are on the frontline of helping individuals and families living with brain injury. They play an essential role in helping patients/clients with their rehabilitation, recovery and in some cases with everyday tasks. Some providers work out of hospitals or other centres, while others are immersed in their patient/clients’ home. 

While stress is a part of most jobs, it is highly prevalent in the healthcare sector.

What is burnout?

Burnout is the term used to describe a state of total exhaustion caused by work or project-related stress. It has profound physical, mental, and emotional consequences that result in a person being unable to cope with the demands being placed upon them personally and professionally. People in high-stress, emotionally complex fields such as healthcare are particularly susceptible to burnout.

  • Over 40% of Canadian physicians report that they are in the advanced stages of burnout
  • Over 40% of Canadian nurses report burnout
  • 14% of general nurses have tested positive for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Healthcare workers are 1.5 times more likely to be off work due to illness or disability than people in all other sectors [1] 

Working with clients or patients can be very rewarding, but over time can take a toll on your health. While your focus is on the patients’ needs, you often overlook your own self-care. There are a few steps you can take to ensure self-care is also a priority, including:

  • Don’t check emails outside of work time if possible
  • Eat properly and drink plenty of water
  • Find activities that bring you happiness
  • Keep your work within the scope of what you can provide
  • Leave work behind when you go home
  • Maintain your own physical and mental health
  • Make healthy sleep a priority
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation
  • Rely on your co-workers or supervisor/manager for support when you need it
  • Set boundaries, and learn to say no if you don’t have the capacity to take on extra responsibility at the time
  • Take breaks during work to relax and regenerate
  • Take vacations or holidays

Compassion fatigue

While focusing on prevention and self-care is essential, sometimes it is not enough to prevent compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue, otherwise known as vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress refers to the emotional and physical exhaustion that can affect healthcare professionals and caregivers over time. The pressure of caring for others can become overwhelming, especially since self-care often gets neglected by those in caregiving positions. Eventually compassion fatigue can set it, causing mental, physical, and emotional health problems – it may even cause you to struggle with compassion for others [2].

Recognizing the signs and seeking help or other interventions are key to reducing the impact and coping with compassion fatigue. Some of the warning signs of compassion fatigue include [3]:

  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Feeling detached from our surroundings or from our physical or emotional experience
  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted, burnt out or numb
  • Feeling hypersensitive or insensitive to stories we hear
  • Feeling less efficient or productive at work
  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless or powerless when hearing of others’ suffering
  • Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness and anxiety
  • Limited tolerance for stress
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches
  • Reduced empathy
  • Reduced pleasure in activities we used to enjoy
  • Relationship conflict
  • Self-isolation and withdrawal
  • Self-medicating and increase in substance use

Tips for coping with compassion fatigue

Coping with compassion fatigue is important – if it isn’t acknowledged and managed, it can impact your ability to continue doing your job and helping others.

Recognize the signs and address it

While there is no simple fix for compassion fatigue, ignoring the symptoms or pushing through will not help – it will only make it worse. It’s important to know the signs and acknowledge it. Talk about it with your employer, your family or friends. It’s the first step towards helping yourself.

Practice good self-care

Many people who work as caregivers or in compassionate professions often put themselves last. But self-care is an incredibly important part of health and wellness. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of others as well. Some ways you can prioritize self-care include:

  • Drinking lots of water
  • Eating well
  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Meditation
  • Meeting with a therapist
  • Setting aside time for yourself each day
Set boundaries that work for you

It’s normal to want to ‘do it all’ and be there for others – but if everyone else is taking up your mental, emotional and physical capacity, there’s nothing left for you. This is why you need to set boundaries that work for you. Don’t be afraid to say no, take frequent breaks, and talk to your employer about mental health days.

It may also be helpful to break up your work day, so you don’t doo too much of one task. For example, focus on patients in the morning, and other tasks in the afternoon.

Identify what causes your compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue will be brought on by different things for different people. By understanding and recognizing what can bring on compassion fatigue, you can address it before it becomes a problem.

Build a support system

No one does anything alone and coping with compassion fatigue shouldn’t be done alone either. A support system of friends, family and co-workers can help you cope and aid you in preventing compassion fatigue in the future. As difficult as it might feel, having other people care about you gives you the break you need to continue doing your job.

Celebrate your successes

When you’re busy focusing on others, it’s easy to let your successes slip by. Don’t let that happen – instead, celebrate them! Acknowledging your victories will make you feel good and create room for you to focus on yourself.


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