Understanding Compassion Fatigue

People suffering from compassion fatigue may find it difficult to feel compassion toward the people they work with, despite their role demanding it.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

I knew many education majors during college–in fact, I was one. I had the opportunity to see first-hand what a 4-year education program at a university looks like, and I also got to see what types of people would choose to enter such a program.

Everyone I met in the program was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. They genuinely loved instruction and they viewed their current and future students as whole people with their own struggles and dreams. These future teachers cared deeply, not just about the educational system, but about the individuals being educated by that system. They all had a passion for the job. During out final year in college, our cohort made shirts that read on the back “Teaching: we’re not in it for the income; we’re in it for the outcome.” Everyone in that cohort was an embodiment of that saying. In all four years, I did not meet a single person who seemed like they would make an uncaring, uncommitted teacher.

And yet, many people have had teachers who seemed uncaring. I’ve had teachers who seemed uncaring.

Why does such a disconnect exist?

I can think of a few reasons. Perhaps the students’ perspectives are just skewed. Perhaps there is a generational difference such that the people entering the education field now think of it as a lifestyle, while more teachers from previous generations considered it more as a job. Or perhaps the group of education majors that I was surrounded by in college was just extraordinarily compassionate.

None of these explanations fully satisfy me.

So what else could explain the difference between the people majoring in education who seem eager and willing to help and the percentage of working teachers who seem cold and bitter? And, even more importantly, how can we keep these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed future educators from losing that passion for their work?

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Simply put, compassion fatigue describes a condition in which a person in a caring role becomes exhausted, both mentally and physically, due to their exposure to others’ traumatic experiences. People suffering from compassion fatigue may find it difficult to feel compassion toward the people they work with, despite their role demanding it. Additionally, they feel drained by the demands of that caring role. Therefore, those experiencing compassion fatigue suffer in their caring role, and that suffering can also bleed into their personal lives.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

While some literature still conflates compassion fatigue and burnout, many researchers use the terms to describe two separate phenomena. Compassion fatigue may appear suddenly after an exposure to secondary trauma, whereas burnout builds over time and has a much slower onset. Compassion fatigue can therefore be described as “unpredictable” whereas burnout can be described as “predictable” (American Bar Association, 2017). Additionally, compassion fatigue is more likely to be treatable, while burnout may require a temporary or permanent break from the type of role that caused it (Good Therapy, 2020).

Careers and Compassion Fatigue

There is both anecdotal evidence and studies to support the idea that teachers, especially those who deal with traumatized or otherwise disadvantaged students, may develop compassion fatigue within their careers, but teachers are far from the only ones to experience this condition. Anyone who spends a significant portion of their job caring for others is a potential victim of compassion fatigue.

Other professionals who may develop compassion fatigue include but are not limited to:

  • therapists
  • social workers
  • medical professionals (including doctors, nurses, nursing home staff, etc.)
  • veterinarians and others working in animal care
  • police officers
  • counselors

It is important to note that, though much of the literature surrounding compassion fatigue focuses on people in caring professions, volunteers and others who make systematic caring a large part of their lives can also be affected. As noted in a 2019 paper by Gorski, Lopresti-Goodman, and Rising about activist burnout in the animal care field, additional research which separates professionals in caring industries and volunteers in such industries is needed. Even if one’s job is not within a field typically associated with compassion fatigue, it is still possible to develop the condition. Thus, anyone who takes on a compassion-heavy role in their lives should be aware of compassion fatigue, monitor for its symptoms, and take steps for its prevention.

Compassion Fatigue Symptoms

  • exhaustion (including physical, mental, and emotional)
  • insomnia
  • changes to appetite
  • depersonalization
  • increased anger, frustration, or irritability toward others
  • inward frustration
  • hopelessness
  • trouble concentrating
  • disconnection from relationships
  • feelings of inadequacy or loss of meaning within the caring role

List compiled using resources from Good Therapy, The American Institute of Stress, The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, and Room 241: A Blog by Concordia University-Portland

How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

  • journal
  • talk about stress with a trusted person
  • seek therapy if necessary
  • take breaks from the work
  • take time to do other activities that you enjoy (“me” time)
  • avoid additional stress as much as possible
  • keep routines (for exercise, sleep, etc.)

List compiled using resources from Good Therapy, Room 241: A Blog by Concordia University-Portland, and Pfifferling & Gilley

How to Treat Compassion Fatigue

The treatment of compassion fatigue looks very similar to its prevention. The maintenance of these activities can help avert a relapse.

  • talk about emotions with a therapist
  • reach out to support networks
  • develop hobbies away from work
  • learn to say “no” and prioritize your own mental health
  • develop an exercise habit
  • prioritize sleep
  • develop self-care routines

List compiled using resources from Good Therapy and Room 241: A Blog by Concordia University-Portland

Some Final Words

Compassion fatigue is sneaky since it affects people who are accustomed to caring for others and asking for little in return. As more research emerges about this condition, we better understand its effects on individuals and the industries in which they work as well as what works to prevent its onset.

If I learned anything from writing this post, it’s that you should express your feelings in a productive way, whether that’s through journaling, creating a blog (hey!), or talking to a friend, family member, boss, or therapist. From personal experience, this advice holds true for anyone, but it is especially important for people who spend large amounts of time in compassionate roles.

In spite of all this research about the detrimental effects of compassion fatigue, I still firmly believe that compassion is worth it. Empathizing and showing compassion can increase one’s own feelings of self-worth, not to mention make profound impacts on others. My purpose for writing this was to increase awareness about this issue as it is an important piece of the puzzle when discussing kindness, empathy, and compassion (as I hope to do more in the future). I did not intend to frighten anyone. (Boo! Okay, this time I did intend to frighten you guys.) In other words, don’t let this blog post deter you from doing good in the world. Just be sure to check in with yourself regularly and be willing to prioritize your mental health for your own sake and for the sake of those you are helping.

Be kind to other people, y’all. And be kind to yourself.


American Bar Association. (2017, August 23). Compassion Fatigue. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/compassion_fatigue/

Good Therapy. (2020, February 10). Compassion Fatigue. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/compassion-fatigue

Gorski, P., Lopresti-Goodman, S., & Rising, D. (2018). “Nobody’s paying me to cry”: the causes of activist burnout in United States animal rights activists. Social Movement Studies18(3), 364–380. doi: 10.1080/14742837.2018.1561260 (can be found at http://edchange.org/publications/activist-burnout-animal-rights-liberation.pdf)

Pfifferling, J.-H., & Gilley, K. (2000, April 1). Overcoming Compassion Fatigue. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html

Room 241: A Blog by Concordia University-Portland. (2020, January 15). Self Care for Teachers Who Educate Traumatized Students. Retrieved from https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/classroom-resources/self-care-for-teachers/

The American Institute of Stress. (2017, January 4). Compassion Fatigue. Retrieved from https://www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2018, March 27). Introduction. Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/secondary-traumatic-stress/introduction

Additional Resources About Compassion Fatigue

One teacher’s experience with compassion fatigue: https://medium.com/the-ascent/i-am-a-teacher-and-have-compassion-fatigue-f469c4a43182

PowerPoint from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration about compassion fatigue and self-care: https://integration.samhsa.gov/pbhci-learning-community/Compassion_Fatigue_Office_Hours.pdf

Blog post about vegan burnout: https://www.plantbasednews.org/opinion/vegan-activist-burnout-animals-agony-broke-me

Article from the Association for Supervision and Curricular Development about compassion fatigue in the education profession: http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol11/1118-sizemore.aspx

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