Understanding and Managing Compassion Fatigue

The healthcare field is demanding on multiple levels. Staffing shortages, increased demands, and overall burnout are all heavy factors that healthcare professionals deal with regularly. 

Compassion fatigue is a distinct part of that heavy load on healthcare workers. While it’s sometimes confused with other negative consequences that healthcare workers deal with, labeling compassion fatigue correctly can help professionals identify and seek help for the condition sooner, so they can start feeling like themselves again.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion is an inherent quality in healthcare professionals that drives their careers and character. When these professionals are regularly exposed to the needs and trauma of patients, however, there is a high risk of developing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a broad concept, but it refers to the physical, emotional, and spiritual stress suffered when providing care and support to other people. 

A clear sign of compassion fatigue is when a person who normally feels highly motivated to help others suddenly feels less able or unable to care. Unfortunately, it’s not the only possible negative mental health effect caused by the heavy strain of the healthcare industry. The constant demands and pressures on healthcare workers can lead to many negative effects, some of which may be confused with each other or mislabeled. 

Here are a few common issues that often contribute to, but differ from, compassion fatigue:


Burnout is one of two components that make up compassion fatigue (the other being secondary traumatic stress). This specific side of compassion fatigue is characterized by feeling hopeless, withdrawn, and as if the difficulties of doing one’s job are insurmountable. 

With many facilities being understaffed, and positions seeing increased expectations, burnout is a common experience in healthcare. In 2023, 91.1 percent of nurses reported experiencing burnout. That number is far too high. 

Understand that even though burnout is common, common does not mean normal. It’s important to recognize the signs of burnout and seek out the support needed to recover.


While overwhelm and burnout are often used interchangeably, their resulting behaviors can be like opposites. The hopelessness and disengagement of burnout can conversely look like hyperfocus and over-engagement when experiencing a sense of overwhelm. The Berkeley Well-Being Institute sums up overwhelm as “overflowing with emotions,” which is distinctly different from the emptiness of burnout. Overwhelm can often lead to burnout, so recognizing the signs of uncontrollable responses or increased stress is imperative.

Empathy Fatigue

This specific type of fatigue is related to compassion fatigue but differs distinctly. Compassion is defined as concern for others, while empathy is experiencing another’s suffering as one’s own. If a professional works with a patient dealing with experiences that closely mirror their own but they’re unable to connect or have the desire to aid others, empathy fatigue could be the cause. 

The Freedom Institute explains in depth how the cure for overused empathy is actually compassion – an ability to care for others without becoming burned out by an empathic response. Additionally, mindfulness is an important practice to differentiate between compassion and empathy. A provider needs to be able to provide patients with a compassionate response while allowing themselves to remain minimally responsive to triggers related to their own trauma or experiences.

Understanding and labeling the specific issues being experienced is a crucial step in moving toward the right resources for help. When providers can differentiate between their responses to their heavy workload (whether those responses are fatigue, burnout, or even hyperfocus), they can better equip themselves with proactive resilience and quickly seek support when needed.

Consequences of Compassion Fatigue

When left unaddressed, the effects of compassion fatigue can become significant. There is an industry-wide toll from compassion fatigue, and it has the potential to cause a breakdown in the country’s healthcare system. Healthcare providers may suffer from physical and emotional symptoms of these conditions, and those symptoms may snowball into serious problems when not addressed. 

Physical Consequences

There are several symptoms that can present themselves when compassion fatigue sets in. In the short term, providers may experience:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Chronic pain
  • Fatigue 

In the long term, compassion fatigue may lead to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

Emotional Consequences

The toll of compassion fatigue will also show through emotional consequences in professionals. Mood swings, anxiety, tearfulness, sadness, and a range of negative emotions can be part of the emotional consequences of unchecked compassion fatigue.

Industry-Wide Consequences

The failure to address compassion fatigue puts the well-being of healthcare workers at risk. Without the right resources and strategies, staffing shortages will grow and patient care will suffer. Caring for patients has to start with caring for workers.

Coping with Compassion Fatigue

There are a variety of preventative steps to reduce the risk of developing compassion fatigue. If a provider feels compassion fatigue has already set in, they should consider these three steps to find some relief.

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue

The symptoms and signs of compassion fatigue might be dismissed early on or be met with self-doubt or justification. Healthcare professionals need to be in tune with their experiences and feelings to best take care of themselves and others. 

When compassion fatigue is recognized, it’s important to address it early on and to share the experience. Helping colleagues recognize compassion fatigue is equally important and can be beneficial when others are struggling to realize the severity of their own.

Finding Someone to Talk to

The experience of healthcare professionals is widely shared, but sometimes the negative effects aren’t talked about. Providers should share their experiences and recognize they aren’t alone in dealing with distinct difficulties that connection is a strong force against compassion fatigue. Some organizations even provide online therapists specific to compassion fatigue or other related issues.

Finding a Support Program or Group

Sometimes self-care is simply not sufficient to overcome the effects of compassion fatigue. When more support is needed, look for a work-based program, a local support group, or online resources such as the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project. When one professional is dealing with compassion fatigue, it’s likely their colleagues are as well. Providing a workplace support program could be a sustainable step in preventing more cases of compassion fatigue in the future.

SHC is Here to Help

Understanding compassion fatigue is crucial for healthcare professionals to maintain their well-being and provide the best care possible for patients. Supplemental Health Care (SHC) supports nursing, healthcare, and school professionals in prioritizing their mental health and well-being. Resources and healthy habits are important to help professionals be the best version of themselves personally, and for patients and students; SHC is committed to connecting professionals with what they need to thrive both personally and professionally.