Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about burnout and its effect on employees and the organizations they work for. We’ve heard significantly less about burnout’s first cousin, compassion fatigue (and quiet quitting).
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue occurs when helping professionals witness people’s suffering, which may transpire during a traumatic event or as a client recounts the event. Over time, helping professionals are less able to cope with the secondary trauma they experience from repeated exposure.
Who Is Susceptible To Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is most common among helping professionals, including medical professionals, long-term care workers, emergency response teams, employees within purpose-driven nonprofit organizations, therapists, chaplains and ministers.
Key Terms Related To Compassion Fatigue?
Also known as secondary trauma and cumulative burnout, vicarious trauma is the emotional strain associated with exposure to suffering people. In other words, it is indirect trauma from exposure to distressful events, disturbing images or difficult stories.
Moral injury is a term widely used pertaining to veterans of war. However, research conducted by McMaster University during the pandemic reveals that healthcare workers encountering potentially traumatic moral and ethical challenges may sustain moral injury.
Compassion Fatigue is stress resulting from exposure to traumatized individuals, leading to an inability to cope and resulting in physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
How are Compassion Fatigue & Burnout Related?
Helping professionals who regularly encounter secondary or vicarious trauma may experience moral injury when unable to relieve the suffering of others, even when it’s their job to do so or due to inadequate resources. Over time, vicarious trauma and moral injury can lead to Compassion Fatigue. Furthermore, a reduced ability to cope can lead to an inability to manage chronic workplace stress, precipitating burnout.
What Is The Link Between Compassion Fatigue & Quiet Quitting?
Many employees facing compassion fatigue and burnout feel deeply connected to their organization’s mandate and those they serve. Therefore, resigning might not be an option, but quiet quitting may be.
With burnout, we typically see cynicism as negativity or a lack of engagement. With compassion fatigue, cynicism often presents when helping professionals create boundaries for self-protection or accomplish the job’s minimum requirements rather than giving it their all.
What Can Be Done To Prevent & Overcome Compassion Fatigue?
Develop A Healthy Organizational Culture
Healthy individuals arise from healthy company culture. Leaders within purpose-driven nonprofits, emergency response organizations and healthcare institutions must focus on overarching systems and processes to support employee well-being.
Benchmarks for sustainable workloads, processes for public recognition, and encouragement of employees’ autonomy are good places to start. Technology can assist in these goals. For instance, a company-wide project management app can significantly reduce antiquated workloads and define prioritization.
Although individuals are responsible for creating healthy boundaries and self-care, research shows burnout and compassion fatigue prevention begins with organizational culture.
Connect To Meaning and Purpose
Most helping professionals, from police to nonprofit executives, enter their careers with dreams of making the world a better place to live. But, over time, burnout and compassion fatigue can erode enthusiasm and cause self-protection, quiet quitting, and cynicism can creep in. Recent research shows that reestablishing a deep sense of meaning and purpose toward one’s job can significantly decrease the chance of burning out. By reconnecting to your organization’s mission, vision and
values and constantly reminding yourself why you do what you do, your chances of avoiding burnout and overcoming compassion fatigue increase dramatically.
Take Self-Care Seriously
Helping professionals tend to struggle with self-care, not due to a lack of knowledge but due to a sense of guilt.
With more needs than time, resources, or energy, one can become overwhelmed with caring for others at the expense of one’s health. Taking time for effective self-care is essential for preventing and overcoming burnout and compassion fatigue.
How We Can Help
At Breakthrough Personal & Professional Development, we provide organizations with consulting and proprietary training for preventing employee burnout through the lens of organizational culture. We meet leaders at the intersection of healthcare and leadership development by taking relevant research and making it understandable and actionable for immediate and long-term results.
Our free Burnout Assessment is used in organizations ranging from healthcare to emergency response, corporate entities to nonprofits, and education to the private sector. Download the Burnout Assessment and a guide for effectively evaluating employee burnout risk across your organization.
 Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. (2019, May 28). Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases
 Give and take reveals the transformative power of helping others. Wharton Executive Education. (2019, February 5). Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://executiveeducation.wharton.upenn.edu/thought-leadership/wharton-at-work/2013/09/give-and-take/#:~:text=Grant%20delves%20into%20the%20differences,burning%20out%20or%20getting%20burned.
 McCann, I. L., & Pearlman, L. A. (1990). Vicarious traumatization: A framework for understanding the psychological effects of working with victims. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 3(1), 131–149. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00975140
 D’Alessandro, A. M., Ritchie, K., McCabe, R., Lanius, R. A., Heber, A., Smith, P., Malain, A., Schielke, H., O’Connor, C., Hosseiny, F., Rodrigues, S., & McKinnon, M. (2021, January). Healthcare workers and covid-19-related moral injury: An interpersonally-focused approach informed by PTSD Academic article. Healthcare Workers and COVID-19-Related Moral Injury: An Interpersonally-Focused Approach Informed by PTSD – McMaster Experts. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://experts.mcmaster.ca/display/publication2178296
 Cocker, F., & Joss, N. (2016, June 22). Compassion Fatigue among Healthcare, Emergency and Community Service Workers: A Systematic Review. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4924075/