The Cost of Caring: Compassion Fatigue and the Helping Professions

by Dawn O'Malley

Supporting and comforting someone who needs it.

Every career comes with some personal risks. People in construction are at risk of injuring their back muscles. People who type all day are at risk of developing inflammation in their wrists. And healthcare workers are at risk for exposure to contagious diseases. People who choose to work in the helping professions are also vulnerable to particular types of risk. The part of the brain that allows us to have empathy and, therefore, provide support to those in emotional pain is at risk for over-use just like the back muscles of someone who lifts heavy things as part of their work. The effects of draining one’s capacity for empathy in the workplace is called compassion fatigue

Discover Your Capacity

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective and have an emotional experience in response. Like most human characteristics, the capacity for empathy occurs along a continuum with some people much better at it than others. Those who choose the helping professions generally have a high capacity for empathy. The best clinicians generally have the greatest ability to empathize. But they’re also at the greatest risk for developing compassion fatigue. Discover your capacity for empathy with the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. It is free to use and more can be learned about it here.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness 
  • Feeling irritable, sad, or numb 
  • Ruminating about the suffering of others
  • Blaming yourself for not helping others enough
  • Decreased sense of professional accomplishment
  • Changes in the way you view the world
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns

Providing support and care to those who have experienced significant adversity and trauma will have an impact on professional caregivers. The best prevention for compassion fatigue is serious self-care.  Helpers must commit to taking care of themselves so that they can provide excellent care for their clients. Serious self-care for those in the helping professions includes includes many aspects. Maintaining a balance between personal and professional lives. Scheduling time for physical, emotional, and spiritual renewal. Keeping a close watch on how traumatic information is impacting you. And focusing on those things that you do have control over, like your own thoughts and feelings. 

Acknowledging the costs of caring on the well-being of those in the helping professions is a relatively new concept. Education about compassion fatigue and strategies for prevention are not generally part of their training. However, there are resources available such as clinical supervision, whole-person self-care plan examples, self-monitoring tools, and, of course, seeking your own helping professional