Compassion fatigue versus Burnout: Understanding the important differences

In our fast-paced, stress-filled world, you’ve probably heard the terms “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” used frequently and interchangeably. They might seem like two sides of the same coin, but they’re actually quite different. Let’s break it down.

What’s compassion fatigue?

Historically compassion fatigue has been viewed as a draining away of compassion. People working in predominantly caring professions – nurses, doctors, teachers, carers, and so on – expend so much compassion for those around them that they eventually become tired and empty.

The problem with this is that it sees compassion as a resource that can be used up. But that isn’t normally how people experience it. Just because you’ve been compassionate to someone in the morning doesn’t make you less likely to be compassionate to a colleague in the afternoon. In fact, compassion is more like a muscle, and the more you exercise it the stronger it tends to get.

So what is happening here? And why might the symptoms of compassion fatigue be observed more prominently amongst carers than in other settings? The reason, Prof Paul Gilbert argues, is because they themselves are not receiving enough compassion in return. They tend to work in settings that are often undervalued and low on resources. They are expending a lot of energy (emotional, mental, and physical) and their wellbeing is not being supported in return.

So when we talk about compassion fatigue it might be better to think of it as “system fatigue” (as Gilbert does) or perhaps as compassion neglect.

And burnout?

Burnout is a state of near-total exhaustion – emotionally, physically, and mentally. It is characterized by symptoms of stress, worry, sleeplessness, and brain fog. It’s caused by a complete mental overwhelm – when you’re trying to do too much without the time, space, or resources to match. It’s become increasingly common in our “always on” culture. Unlike compassion fatigue, people can experience burnout even if the pressures on them don’t necessarily involve offering a great deal of emotional support.

So how do we respond?

The important thing to note is that dealing with burnout and compassion fatigue requires both individual and systemic change.

At an individual level, time-out (if financially and logistically possible) can always help someone to recharge. Self-care techniques like meditation, exercise, and the pursuit of hobbies can also be rejuvenating.

But while these will help stave off or lessen the impact of compassion fatigue and burnout, more has to be done to change the culture and systems people are a part of and which are – to a large extent – causing these emotional and physical strains. More support is needed for people who care – whether professionally or personally. Greater help is needed for those in frontline roles who give help, advice, and aid to people who need it. Workplaces need to better understand and reflect our limits as humans (let’s not confuse ourselves with the AI machines we’re creating) as well as the breadth and depth of our various emotional states.

Burnout and compassion fatigue may be personal in their impacts but they are systemic in their cause. We have to address both if we are to create greater well-being and happiness.

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