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What is compassion fatigue and how can it affect your career?

If you’re considering a career in caring professions like nursing, social work or clinical psychology, or are already working in your chosen field, chances are you’re a pretty compassionate person who wants to help others.

But looking after those in need can take its toll on even the kindest, most caring among us and deplete our compassion reserves. Psychologists call this ‘compassion fatigue’, a state of exhaustion and dysfunction as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.

‘Compassion fatigue is recognised as an effect of caring and being in the caring professions,’ says Dr Stephane Bouchoucha, Associate Head of School at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Deakin University.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue involves a gradual reduction of compassion over time. It’s common in professions that depend on a compassionate workforce like nursing, social work and clinical psychology. People who care for family members with serious illnesses and the news-consuming public are also at risk of compassion fatigue.

Dr Bouchoucha says compassion fatigue is more prevalent when patients or clients are particularly unwell. ‘If we look at nursing, for example, there’s areas where there’s more prevalence and it’s working with people with cancer, in nursing homes and in intensive care units where the outcomes are not very good for the patients,’ he says.

The jury is still out on exactly what causes compassion fatigue, but Dr Bouchoucha says a risk factor is when there’s a disconnect between what’s happening, and what caring professionals think should be happening, when they’re caring for someone.

‘We go into these professions wanting to help people and we’ve got an idea of how it’s going to look when we help someone, but sometimes it doesn’t go according to how we think it should go,’ he says. ‘This dissonance can contribute to compassion fatigue.’

How compassion fatigue affects your health and career

Psychological symptoms of compassion fatigue include a reduced ability to feel empathy towards patients or clients, mood swings, irritability and being over-sensitive. Compassion fatigue can also elicit physical symptoms like headaches, sleep disturbances and fatigue.

If left untreated, compassion fatigue can lead to anxiety, depression, burnout – a syndrome characterised by exhaustion, depersonalisation and discouragement – and what’s often called secondary trauma – emotional distress that results from being exposed to other people’s trauma.

'We go into these professions wanting to help people and we've got an idea of how it's going to look when we help someone, but sometimes it doesn't go according to how we think it should go. This dissonance can contribute to compassion fatigue.'

Dr Stephane Bouchoucha,
School of Nursing and Midwifery, Deakin University

Of course, it’s hard to do your job well if you’re not in good health, and that’s especially the case for caring professions. ‘Burnout and secondary trauma can have a significant impact on your career because you’re not displaying empathy, you’re avoiding work and you’re experiencing a lack of enjoyment in work,’ Dr Bouchoucha says.

‘In the long term, compassion fatigue can really put your professional competency at risk because if you don’t have a sense of empathy it’s very hard to look after people and provide them with the care they need.’

How to prevent compassion fatigue and future-proof your career

Thankfully, there’s a lot you can do to prevent compassion fatigue and strive for its friendlier, career-building counterpart: compassion satisfaction.

Dr Bouchoucha says questionnaires like the Professional Quality of Life Scale – developed by one of the world’s leading experts on compassion fatigue – can help to identify early signs and symptoms, paving the way for early intervention.

‘These questionnaires help people reflect on how work makes them feel and can help people realise there might be something not as it should be in their professional life,’ he says.

Having a mentor has also been shown to reduce the risk of compassion fatigue because it gives caring professionals the opportunity to talk about their feelings and experiences as well as observe how senior colleagues cope with work stress.

Mindfulness – focusing on whatever you’re doing in the present moment – is another effective strategy to combat compassion fatigue. And it needn’t involve meditation if being still and quiet isn’t your thing. Dr Bouchoucha says mindfulness can take on many forms like high-impact physical exercise, craft activities and mindful eating.

‘And if you become overwhelmed at work and get distracted by thoughts about how things should be, try to re-centre yourself and pull yourself back to the present moment,’ he says. ‘Focus on your breathing, things you can feel and things you can hear. Refocus your thought process rather than letting your thoughts get away.’

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Dr Stephane Bouchoucha
Dr Stephane Bouchoucha

Associate Head of School, International, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Deakin University

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