Compassion Fatigue

Is there a cost to caring?

There can be a cost of caring if you’re caring in a way that is a detrimental to yourself or if it is outside of your role, capabilities or resources. Compassion fatigue manifests from a combination of: 

  1. Imbalance of tools (I.e., practical, personal, energy) to cope withNurse Sitting Downthe demand of caring  
  2. Enmeshing yourself with other people’s emotions as if they were your own 
  3. Limited positive feedback for being compassionate  
  4. Role confusion (I.e., being a therapist rather than a partner) 


Compassion fatigue is a contentious topic within academic literature including its definition and conceptualisation. However, in its most simplistic form it describes an indifference towards emotional sharing where compassion would usually occur, in addition to emotional and physical symptoms. People in caring roles generally report a higher prevalence of compassion fatigue than the general population. 

Signs, Symptoms and Triggers

How will you know if you are experiencing compassion fatigue?

You might experience a few or all of the following: 

  • Apathy, emotional distancing, feeling your on-auto pilot, non-responsiveness, feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders or hopelessness  
  • Self-criticism and judgment, distress when seeing someone suffering, agitation, resentment, and avoidance of emotional topics and conversation 
  • Not wanting to go to work, lack of job satisfaction, minimal support from superiors or little training  
  • Fatigue, disruption to sleep and appetite, interpersonal difficulties, not attending to your own needs or not communicating them effectively  

How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue  

Adjust and manage expectations about your caring role.

You cannot be the superhero for everyone and you do not have super powers. What you do have is knowledge in your field and tools to respond to the situation in the best way you can. Being compassionate towards yourself is a protective factor against compassion fatigue. Be mindful of how you feel and give yourself credit for caring, considering the difficult situations which you are exposed to.  

A Lady Thinking

Recognise any negative automatic thoughts which are unhelpful.

For example, discounting the positives, jumping to conclusions or labelling ourselves (I.e., “idiot, stupid, useless etc.”). We leave ourselves vulnerable to further stressors and take away from the positive impact we are having on people’s lives.

Take the stance of prioritising yourself at home and work.

This means implementing healthy boundaries which promote separation between home and work (I.e., not checking emails, thinking about work); and attending to your needs (eating, sleeping, exercise, social outings, recreation and downtime).  

Communicate with a supervisor after stressful events.

This allows you to receive support when you need it, debrief and get feedback on how to manage similar situations in the future. This way you are not bringing thoughts about work home and you increase the tools to cope with the caring role.  

Assess the way that you show compassion in your caring role.

By keeping the focus on the other person and not allowing yourself to enmesh with their experience, you can accurately validate their emotions and provide appropriate support.  

Have a clear understanding of your role and seek to provide empathy in a realistic and appropriate way.

Don’t take the stance of a counsellor, GP, nurse, or parent when this is not your role. Role confusion creates unrealistic expectations and responsibilities you are not equipped for. Delegate tasks where you need to. This is also true of romantic relationships, whilst reaching out for support is a positive thing, if you or your partner is becoming overwhelmed by providing support make sure you build skills to cope and access professional support if you need to.  

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