Tuesday, February 9, 2021

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Most caregivers have probably heard about burnout, but many are unfamiliar with the concept of compassion fatigue and how these two conditions differ. Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm, Ph.D., a retired professor, and researcher in the field of traumatic stress, defines compassion as “feeling and acting with deep empathy and sorrow for those who suffer.” Family caregivers are often compassionate individuals by nature. This characteristic is typically considered an asset, but it leaves them at risk for the negative “costs of caring” for others. 

Unlike caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder that results from exposure to another person’s traumatic experience(s) and creates high levels of emotional stress. Compassion fatigue is primarily considered an occupational hazard for individuals who encounter stress and trauma in their work environments, such as nurses, mental health professionals, correctional workers, and child protection workers. In fact, it is a contributing factor in why many people in these fields leave their jobs to pursue other kinds of work. 

Unsurprisingly, family caregivers are also susceptible to this occupational hazard. Consider an adult child whose “job” is providing full-time care for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. They may not be administering high-level skilled nursing care, but they are still caring for someone in emotional and physical distress with limited options for providing comfort. While there are many similarities between professionals in high-stress jobs and family caregivers, the latter do not enjoy the same preventive measures that many employers offer, such as mental health days, peer support, and professional counseling.

Forgoing breaks, respite and meaningful support add up, affecting one’s overall quality of life. Family caregivers are emotionally invested in their loved ones’ well-being, leaving them especially vulnerable. One study that examined 30 years’ worth of existing literature on compassion fatigue in professionals acknowledged that “Compassion fatigue occurs when a caregiving relationship founded on empathy potentially results in a deep psychological response to stress that progresses to physical, psychological, spiritual, and social exhaustion in the family caregiver.”

Compassion fatigue also differs from burnout in that it causes caregivers to experience a weakened sense of empathy for those in their care. This is an important distinction because most family caregivers take on their role out of love. Unlike nurses and social workers who are not tasked with caring for individuals they know personally, informal caregivers look after their family members and even close friends.

Family caregivers are emotionally invested in their loved ones’ well-being, leaving them especially vulnerable. One study that examined 30 years’ worth of existing literature on compassion fatigue in professionals acknowledged that “Compassion fatigue occurs when a care‐giving relationship founded on empathy potentially results in a deep psychological response to stress that progresses to physical, psychological, spiritual, and social exhaustion in the family caregiver.”

Compassion fatigue also differs from burnout in that it causes caregivers to experience a weakened sense of empathy for those in their care. This is an important distinction because most family caregivers take on their role out of love. Unlike nurses and social workers who are not tasked with caring for individuals they know personally, informal caregivers look after their family members and even close friends.

While compassion fatigue exists on a spectrum, once one has developed a certain level of indifference or insensitivity to a care recipient, it is wise to step back from the caregiving role at least temporarily.

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