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What Are You Really Experiencing: The Difference Between Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

If you have found yourself working or taking on the role of helping others in life, it's likely you've had to grapple with emotionally taxing situations. As you've navigated through these situations you've likely come accross the terms 'burnout', 'compassion fatigue, and 'vicarious trauma'. These terms have gained a lot more light in recent years but can sometimes become convoluted. While these terms share common ground, understanding their nuanced differences is pivotal for individuals and organizations seeking to address these emotional challenges with empathy and support.

Let's Start With Burnout

Burnout, a psychological term, embodies a state of overall exhaustion and a noticeable lack of interest or motivation regarding one's work. This condition typically evolves in response to chronic workplace stressors and an overwhelming workload, manifesting gradually as feelings of hopelessness and a belief that one's efforts yield little positive impact.

Some of the most common symptoms of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion or excessive sleep issues

  • Feelings of chronic overwhelm

  • Cynicism and detachment

  • Negative impacts on relationships

  • Headaches and gastrointestinal issues

  • Negative impacts on productivity

So What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma, resonates deeply with those in "helping professions" like counseling, crisis advocacy, social work, police, and firefighting. It's not a singular experience but comprises two interconnected facets: burnout and secondary traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress occurs when we are exposed, even indirectly, to traumatically stressful events. This can include stressors like hearing about a clients abuse, witnessing abuses of the systems, or the constant reading of trauma-filled case files. In essence, compassion fatigue is the combination of burnout and these secondary traumas.

Burnout + Secondary Traumatic Stress = Compassion Fatigue

This is why burnout and compassion fatigue sometimes feel synonymous, it's because they absolutely can be! However, there are some key differences between the two:


Compassion Fatigue

Slow gradual onset over time caused by chronically high workload.

Can occur rather quickly, expecially after experiencing a significant secondary trauma.

Can occur in professions that are and are not exposed to significant secondary trauma.

Occurs overwhelmingly in professions that are exposed to secondary trauma.

Symptoms may resemble depression, and include anxiety.

Symptoms may resemble symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Emotional detachment stemming from the need to reduce stress.

Emotional detachment stemming from the need to preserve wellbeing and empathy.

Often results in workplace resentment and frustration.

Often results in resentment towards workplace, and overall worldview.

Crucial Differences

At the heart of distinguishing compassion fatigue from burnout is their origin and their manifestation over time. Compassion fatigue is specifically rooted in the emotional toll of aiding those who have experienced trauma, while burnout stems from the persistent stress and burdens of being consistently overworked. The two often look similiar in the beginning and begin to differ over time.

Treating and Preventing Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

Burnout: Mitigating burnout often involves systemic changes in the workplace as well as individual strategies for stress management. Organizations can implement policies that promote a healthier work environment, such as realistic workload expectations, clear communication channels, and resources for employee support. On an individual level, time management skills, prioritization, and effective delegation can contribute to a more sustainable workload. Seeking professional guidance through counseling or therapy can aid in developing coping mechanisms and addressing underlying issues contributing to burnout. Furthermore, fostering a supportive workplace culture that encourages open communication and values employee well-being is crucial in preventing and addressing burnout.

Compassion Fatigue: Addressing compassion fatigue involves a multifaceted approach to restore emotional well-being. Self-care practices play a crucial role, encompassing activities that nurture physical, emotional, and mental health. This may include regular exercise, mindfulness practices, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Seeking support through peer groups, supervision, or professional counseling can provide a valuable outlet for processing emotions and building resilience. Additionally, setting clear boundaries in professional roles and learning to recognize one's limits are essential aspects of preventing and managing compassion fatigue.

Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in Therapy

Sometimes self-care strategies, boundaries, and education aren't enough, and that's ok. If you or someone you know is still struggling with burnout or compassion fatigue counselling can help to identify the unique factors at play. Therapeutic approaches to burnout and compassion fatigue include:

  • Identifying and managing symptoms through coping and regulation skills

  • Getting to the root of your symptoms

  • Reconnecting with your sense of self and passions

  • Resolving feelings of resentment and anger

  • Exploring career options and implementing necessary changes

  • Identifying past experiences that may exacerbate or trigger intense emotional responses in your work

Within the world of professions centered on helping others, the terms "burnout" and "compassion fatigue" have become integral to conversations surrounding emotional well-being. It's clear that those who dedicate themselves to assisting others may find themselves facing these challenges, and understanding the nuances between burnout and compassion fatigue is crucial. While burnout stems from chronic workplace stress and overwhelming workloads, compassion fatigue is intricately tied to the emotional toll of aiding those who have experienced trauma.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of these conditions is the first step toward fostering a culture of empathy and support. Whether grappling with burnout or compassion fatigue, the path to healing involves a multifaceted approach. From systemic changes in the workplace to individual strategies for stress management, the journey toward well-being is unique for each person. Therapy provides a safe space for exploring the roots of these challenges, developing coping mechanisms, and rediscovering one's sense of self. By acknowledging these emotional challenges and seeking the necessary support, individuals and organizations can create environments that prioritize not only productivity but also the holistic well-being of those engaged in the vital work of helping others.

If you are someone experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue seeking a

counsellor who understands, please feel free to reach out and book a session.


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