Understanding the Impact of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Maybe you’re on the brink of emotional exhaustion. Perhaps you feel depressed, anxious, or generally apathetic about everything- and you aren’t really sure what to do about it.

Compassion fatigue and burnout can occur in numerous contexts. You might experience these issues if you work in a high-stress job or experience ongoing adversities at home. You may also face a heightened risk if you struggle with other mental health conditions.

Regardless of the situation, it’s imperative that you understand this impact and recognize what you can do to help yourself. Let’s get into what you should know.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is sometimes referred to as burnout combined with secondary traumatic stress. It can happen due to caregiving, working in helping professions, or devoting significant time to supporting others.

Compassion isn’t a limitless state. It’s certainly possible to care too much and overextend yourself in ways that impact your emotional well-being. Over time, an endless cycle of giving can result in emotional exhaustion. 

The common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Feeling apathetic towards yourself or others.
  • Increased agitation.
  • Feeling directionless or purposeless.
  • Increased chronic pain.
  • Lack of concentration or focus.
  • Violent thoughts about yourself or others.
  • Persistent sadness.
  • Desires to “quit” or escape from the situation entirely.
  • Increased substance use or engaging in other impulsive behaviors.

Compassion fatigue can happen to anyone, and symptoms may appear gradually. In other words, you may be struggling more than you realize. It might take a particular trigger or negative experience for you to recognize the severity of your situation.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout refers to an exacerbated response to persistent, job-related stress. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a well-known scale that evaluates burnout. This scale focuses on three components.

Emotional Exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion results from feeling persistent fatigue and drained in the workplace. People who feel emotionally exhausted often report feeling “spent” by the end of the day. They may indicate being at the “end of their rope,” and they often feel frustrated by their job altogether.


Depersonalization refers to developing a bitter, apathetic, or hostile feeling towards the workplace. People who experience depersonalization may identify with “not caring” what happens to their clients, patients, or team members. They might become cynical about their job and present as overly sarcastic and pessimistic.

Reduced Personal Accomplishment

Reduced personal accomplishment results in feeling like the work doesn’t matter- or that you aren’t achieving anything worthwhile. People who experience this issue often doubt their capabilities, feel anxious after social interactions, and struggle with workplace problem-solving.

Tips for Coping With Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

It’s essential to try to avoid berating yourself for how you feel. Compassion fatigue and burnout are typical responses when someone becomes emotionally overwhelmed. In addition, you are not a bad person for struggling with this situation. 

Prioritize More Self-Care

Self-care refers to identifying and honoring your needs. Practicing self-care can help you feel more confident and empowered to manage everyday situations. It may also mitigate stress.

Self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but most people benefit from:

  • Staying physically active.
  • Eating a healthy, well-rounded diet.
  • Getting quality sleep each night.
  • Reaching out for positive support.
  • Engaging in meaningful activities and hobbies.
  • Practicing routine stress management.

Set Limits

Setting limits with others can help reduce or eliminate compassion fatigue and burnout. So many times, people struggle with resentment and fatigue due to overextending themselves.

Practice saying no, and remind yourself that you don’t have to agree to every request that someone asks of you. If you feel worried that refusing certain responsibilities places your job in jeopardy, it’s worth having an assertive conversation with your boss or HR representative. 

Reevaluate Unhealthy Situations

If you feel trapped in a particularly challenging role, you may need to consider changing the circumstances altogether. Your mental health matters, and if you feel like things aren’t improving, you may need an external change.

Some red flags indicating an unhealthy workplace include:

  • Poor communication within departments and among your bosses.
  • Bullying or gossip that doesn’t get addressed.
  • Lack of healthy work-life balance.
  • Confusing or punitive policies.
  • High employee turnover.
  • Lack of feedback or validation for workplace performance.
  • Feeling pressured to engage in tasks outside your scope of competence or practice.

These environments can be stifling for everyone. If you are in this situation, it’s worth reflecting on your alternative options and considering an action-based plan for how you want to proceed. 

How Therapy Can Help

Compassion fatigue and burnout can be insidious conditions that often progress without intervention. Furthermore, they may exacerbate other issues related to depression, anxiety, trauma, or substance use disorders.

Therapy can help you understand your situation and recognize triggers that might aggravate your symptoms. It can also provide you with healthier coping skills to manage your stress. At Willow Counseling, we are here to support you. Contact us today to schedule your free consultation!

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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