When you think of your job, do you ever feel burned out? Tired of listening to the woes of others? Physically, emotionally, or spiritually exhausted? If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be at risk for compassion fatigue. The good news is that by taking consistent steps for self-care, you can avoid the effects of compassion fatigue—and keep loving your job as a result.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a common condition that is also referred to as secondary or vicarious trauma. It can occur when individuals experience physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion as a result of being persistently exposed to the suffering of others. Dr. Charles Figley, editor of Compassion Fatigue: Coping With Secondary Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized, says that compassion fatigue can even contribute to physical pain. Compassion fatigue can also lead to apathy or a decreased ability to feel empathy toward others, according to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project.

Two important components of compassion fatigue are secondary trauma—defined as an emotional response to another person’s tragedy—and burnout. If you think you’re at risk, you may want to consider the following warning signs of compassion fatigue, as outlined by the authors of an article for Family Practice Management:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Need to place blame
  • Inability to maintain balance of empathy and objectivity
  • Depression
  • Frequent headaches
  • Lack of sleep
  • Misuse of drugs, alcohol, or food
  • Feeling of failure
  • Anger
  • Hopelessness
  • Chronic lateness
  • Hypertension
  • Less ability to feel joy
  • High self-expectations
  • Workaholism
  • Exhaustion (physical or emotional)
  • Gastrointestinal pain
  • Increased irritability

Who is affected by compassion fatigue?

Those in helping professions are at high risk for compassion fatigue because of their frequent exposure to the pain and suffering of others. Examples include social workers, counselors, nurses, first responders, nursing home staff, and physicians. In these types of jobs, compassion fatigue can carry a high cost if it prevents such professionals from performing tasks effectively or causes them to avoid situations where they’re needed most.

However, individuals in other lines of work can experience compassion fatigue, too. Basically, if the need for empathy and compassion is an essential part of a person’s job and self-care is neglected, then compassion fatigue can result. That could include anyone from foreign service workers to lawyers and others involved in criminal, family, or juvenile law, where exposure to human-induced trauma is a regular occurrence.

Additionally, with today’s 24-hour news cycle regularly providing updates on crises and traumatic events around the world, no one is immune to compassion fatigue.

How do you find balance to avoid losing the passion you have for your job?

One of the most important ways to address and prevent compassion fatigue is to practice self-care. A Guide to Understanding and Coping with Compassion Fatigue highlights how disaster workers are educated to screen survivors for negative behavioral health effects that may occur and to use their training about developing resilience and inner strength to help themselves. Individuals in this line of work are at such high risk for compassion fatigue that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a number of recommendations to help disaster workers avoid compassion fatigue—which you can apply to your situation, too:

  • Embrace the four core components of resilience: adequate sleep, good nutrition, regular physical activity, and active relaxation.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep or rest.
  • Keep yourself hydrated and eat foods that provide high nutrition.
  • Be consistent in practicing good hygiene.
  • Symbolically “wash away” the burdens of others by washing up after your work shift.
  • Stay in touch with friends and family. 
  • Use ceremony and ritual to help you let go of stress or honor a positive memory.
  • Embrace mutual support with your co-workers to celebrate successes and mourn sorrows.
  • Give yourself alone time as needed to process.
  • Engage your spirituality or reach out for support from a faith leader.
  • Establish deeper connections with your work colleagues.
  • Take a break from work and embrace new hobbies.
  • Identify things that you can look forward to in the future.