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Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and How Can I Prevent It?

By: Danielle Bertini, LPC

           Have you ever heard of compassion fatigue? Maybe you heard it from the job you work at or from a family member. Maybe you’ve actually never heard of it before. Compassion fatigue can be a serious hazard, especially for those working in helping professions. This isn’t surprising, as those with the most empathy are the most at risk.

           So, what is it? Compassion fatigue is characterized by “physical and emotional exhaustion and a profound decrease in the ability to empathize” (The Cost of Caring, 2020). This phenomenon is often a form of secondary traumatic stress, as the stress occurs as a result of helping those who are in need. It is also sometimes referred to as “the cost of caring.”

           It is also not uncommon to hear compassion fatigue referred to as burnout, however they are not the same. Whereas burnout usually happens over time, compassion fatigue can be less predictable and might come without warning (The Cost of Caring, 2020). Here are 10 ways to prevent compassion fatigue (The Cost of Caring, 2020):

  1.     Get educated

If you are someone who might be at risk for compassion fatigue, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms so that you can work to prevent them. Here are some common signs:

  •       Chronic exhaustion
  •       Reduced feelings of sympathy/empathy
  •       Dreading working for or taking care of others
  •       Feelings of irritability, anger, or anxiety
  •       Depersonalization
  •       Hypersensitivity or complete insensitivity
  •       Feelings of inequity towards the therapeutic relationship
  •       Headaches
  •       Trouble sleeping
  •       Weight loss
  •       Impaired decision-making
  •       Problems in personal relationships
  •       Poor work-life balance
  •       Diminished sense of career fulfillment
  1.     Practice self-care

Self-care can be a critical part of protecting yourself against compassion fatigue. It is common for those who constantly attend to the needs of others to then neglect their own. Although a good self-care routine can look different from person to person, some things that are generally included are: a balanced diet, regular exercise, restful sleep, work-life balance, and honoring emotional needs.

  1.     Set emotional boundaries

It is especially important for those in any caregiving role/human services career to set firm emotional boundaries and protect themselves. The challenge here is to remain empathic and supportive of others without becoming overly involved in their lives or take on their pain. This is where setting emotional boundaries becomes crucial. If individuals in these kinds of fields are constantly exposed to trauma, they may begin to feel overwhelmed.

  1.     Engage in outside hobbies

Another way you can help protect yourself from compassion fatigue is to maintain a healthy work-life balance. If your time is constantly spent at work or even just thinking about work, it is easy to become burnt out. Time and time again studies have shown the importance of workers having work-life balance and how it can help lower stress levels and improve overall life satisfaction. 

  1.     Cultivate healthy friendships outside of work

Although it is great to have close relationships with co-workers, it is also important to have healthy relationships outside of work. Having friends outside of the workplace can help ensure that you are having conversations that do not constantly revolve around work. 

  1.     Keep a journal

Some people process things best by journaling and writing down their thoughts and emotions. Taking the time to process through your emotions can help prevent you from suppressing them, which can further increase compassion fatigue.

  1.     Boost your resiliency

Resiliency is our ability to bounce back from stress. For some people, resilience is a skill that can be learned and cultivated. Resilience is something that can help be a protective factor against compassion fatigue, as those who show higher levels of resiliency are better able to prevent it.

  1.     Use positive coping strategies

It can be tempting to wash away stress with things such as alcohol and drugs. However, these coping strategies can actually increase stress in the long run. Instead, try making a list of positive coping strategies you can use in stressful times. For example, meditation, taking a long walk, taking a bath, talking with a friend, or deep breathing.

  1.     Identify workplace strategies

Some workplace strategies that can be useful include: support groups to discuss compassion fatigue, regular breaks, mental health days, check-ins, onsite counseling, and relaxation rooms.

  1. Seek personal therapy

If you find yourself feeling significantly stressed or overwhelmed, you may find it helpful to talk with one of our counselors at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact Symmetry today by calling 312-578-9990 to get matched with one of our licensed therapists. 


The Cost of Caring: 10 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue. (2020, March 3).

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