It may not be stress…compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue

Here at Calm People we talk a lot about stress. It is prevalent in all our lives and it is becoming more acceptable to talk about. That is a good thing. As we all become more aware of stress, and depression, it is possible that some other possible issues get overlooked. One of these is compassion fatigue.

Compassion Fatigue

Here’s a couple of definitions for this interesting issue 

The textbook definition is that compassion fatigue is stress resulting from exposure to a traumatised individual. It has been described as the convergence of secondary traumatic stress and cumulative burnout, a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by a depleted ability to cope with one’s everyday environment

Our definition : Compassion fatigue, unlike burnout that can be caused by excessive everyday stresses both at work and home, is caused directly by experiences in an occupation. Therapists are often cited as the sole owners of compassion fatigue, but in reality, we could class it as a risk to anyone in an occupation where they provide a therapeutic element to their service. That does not mean you have to be a therapist even though they are obviously at risk. For instance hairdressers, since the beginning of time, have known that their relationship with a client provides a safe space for them to express themselves. More obviously doctors, funeral directors, nurses and paramedics. Less obviously massage therapists, physiotherapists and lawyers …especially those engaged in family law.

We are noticing more people talking about and presenting with this issue which is not really surprising. When we go through periods of intense uncertainty and stress the issues tend to come to the surface some time later. COVID19 and lockdowns became almost normalised over a year ago. Now we live with COVID19 and have got used to its presence. As that state of alarm reduces and our relationship with what was once a threat, drops to background noise. Thus, our mind and body starts to feel safe enough to allow us to feel vulnerable. Something it was not allowed when it was in high alert. That means the issues we have been burying deep down while dealing with the emergency start to rise to the surface.

Some Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue:

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

No surprise that they are similar to symptoms of stress since that too, is about vulnerability.

Whether you are in the occupations we have named or another where you find yourself exposed regularly to other peoples trauma and challenges, spotting the symptoms is a great starting place. 

What to do about it

I have separated these into what an individual can do and what an organisation or business may want to do for its employees.


  • Journaling – emptying your head of your worries and problems onto paper can be profoundly helpful over time. Set aside 15 minutes a day and write. It does not have to make sense. Just get  it out of your system.
  • Meditation – Over time this can develop your ability to concentrate, remain more in the present moment and be more observant of others issues rather than owning them or the associated feelings that go with them.
  • Speak to a counsellor or therapist. They are trained and experienced in helping people navigate their way around these issues and much more. It is always possible that compassion fatigue is the presenting issue but the root lies elsewhere and an experienced therapist can help you work that out for yourself.

Organisations & Businesses

  • Set up an EAP scheme – Employee Assistance Programmes are insurance backed schemes that offer a range of facilities mainly used to pick the team member up when they fall. A great example of this is that most schemes will have an allowance of 5 or 6 sessions of counselling for a member of the scheme who needs them.
  • Set up a buddy support system. If you have a team that you know are regularly exposed to these issues, buddy them up and train them in simple listening skills to help each other download. This can be a really creative and lower cost solution.
  • Group Supervision – This is where a professional such as Calm People facilitates a safe space where a team of individuals can talk about their issues at work. They can  gain support from their peers and from a professional. We do this with a couple of law practices every month.
  • Get Calm People in to run a workshop. That’s what we do. Emotional Resilience themed workshops that help individuals and teams deal with their vulnerable feelings and develop their own healthy coping mechanisms. To view just a few of our workshops click here
  • Get Online Support – For cost effective  mental and emotional health support on a large scale the online method can be really useful. Calm People have developed our own site that delivers a comprehensive assessment, an indepth confidential personal report and houses over 45 videos, workbooks and articles that help you become more aware and develop the coping mechanisms you need. We help organisations and businesses introduce it and use it too. To take a closer look click here.

Whether you are an individual or an organisation. Compassion fatigue can be a real challenge for you or your employees. With the right support in place, however, it does not have to be a long term painful issue.

If you would like to talk more about Calm People’s workplace solutions or how we help individuals feel free to reach out for a chat and email


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