Skip to main content

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?

By Emily Becher

4 people looking at nature with arms around each other
Recent data demonstrate an increase in mental health symptoms in youth. And yet a topic of conversation I’ve been having is around the idea that behind every young person who is struggling, there are adults who are most likely struggling themselves. This creates a recipe for increases in compassion fatigue for youth workers and it is something to be aware of and work towards preventing.

What is compassion fatigue? 

Compassion fatigue starts with compassion stress. Compassion stress can be referred to as the cost of caring and describes when someone experiences higher levels of stress because they 1) care deeply, and 2) the people they are working with are going through a highly stressful experience or series of experiences. 

Over time, if unaddressed, compassion stress can lead to compassion fatigue and can look like:
  • A loss of compassion that can lead to poor judgment. 
  • Unexplained or unexpected ongoing negative feelings like loss of meaning and hope, anger, detachment, and depression. 
  • Physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, stomach issues, high blood pressure, and problems sleeping.
  • Problematic behaviors like performing poorly at work, increased use of alcohol and substances, and conflict in close relationships and/or isolating yourself from loved ones.

How to prevent compassion fatigue? 

The most impactful way to prevent compassion fatigue is to consider if you have the resources you need to address the demands placed upon you. 
  • Reduce your stress. If it is at work, is there a balanced workload between yourself and others? If it is at home, are there ways you can allocate some of your caregiving burden to others? Being responsible for too many things at once and not having enough time off to take care of ourselves can put us at risk for compassion fatigue. 
  • Increase your skills. When someone feels less competent in what they’re doing, it increases their risk for compassion fatigue. Is there training or support you could access to help feel more competent and skilled in the context you are working in? 
  • Take care of yourself. People who exercise regularly, eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, have ways to relax and have fun, and have positive relationships with others are at reduced risk of compassion fatigue. Are there small steps you can take each day to make sure that you are ‘paying it forward’ to your future self? 
  • Support. Supportive workplaces, supervisors, coworkers, and support groups with others who are experiencing similar things, can all be helpful in preventing compassion fatigue. Are there ways for you to advocate for more support if you are in a workplace? Are there ways for you to connect with others experiencing similar things? If a support group doesn’t currently exist on the topic, can you start one? If you’re looking for someplace to start, check out these resources from NAMI Minnesota.

If you are struggling with compassion fatigue, what should you do? 

The first to know is that what you’re feeling is a normal response to an abnormal situation. A great first step is to talk to your health care provider who can talk with you about your concerns and what the next steps might be. If you’re unsure if you are struggling with compassion fatigue, one approach is to take a validated self-assessment like the ProQOL (Professional Quality of Life). Bring your results with you to your next health care appointment to discuss with your provider. 

Are you seeing an increase in compassion fatigue in the youth development field? What do you do to take care of yourself as you care for others?

-- Emily Becher, applied research & evaluation specialist
Extension Center for Family Development

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

Print Friendly and PDF