Why are empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue so common?

December 8, 2021 - 19 min read

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What is empathy fatigue?

Compassion fatigue vs empathy fatigue

12 symptoms of empathy fatigue

Why is empathy fatigue becoming a more common issue?

What triggers empathy fatigue?

How to overcome and treat empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue

10 ways to treat empathy fatigue

Although it’s usually associated with mental health professionals, empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue are becoming common among people from all professions. 

Simply put, it’s the weariness you feel from being responsible for the pain of others for an extended amount of time. However, there are some differences between empathy and sympathy

When you’re responsible for other people, you’re susceptible to “emotional contagion.” That is, being affected by the feelings and suffering of others.

However, like any other stressor, constant exposure can result in fatigue. It can also have negative consequences on your physical and mental well-being.

If you’ve found yourself simply unable to “care” anymore, chances are, you’ve experienced empathy fatigue. Let’s take a look at some helpful tips on how to deal with empathy fatigue.

What is empathy fatigue?

The term “empathy fatigue” was first developed by Professor Mark Stebnicki, a professor at East Carolina University. He documented the phenomenon while supporting a community reeling from a school shooting. 

As a member of a crisis response team, Stebnicki found that empathy fatigue was a unique concern for counselors and others in what he termed “high-touch” professions. That is, those who rely on their emotional connection to their clients and patients to perform their jobs. 

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When describing empathy fatigue to Counseling Today, Stebnicki said, “The nature of the client-counselor relationship requires a below-the-surface level of intense and compassionate listening. It requires us to be deeply involved in our client’s woundedness and to respond empathically.” 

Stebnicki was speaking about counseling. But empathy fatigue is common in professionals who teach, care for, or work with others. This includes healthcare professionals, coaches, and teachers. 

Empathy fatigue is compounded when individuals have other stressors. These stressors include at-home caregiving roles or PTSD from a global pandemic.

Compassion fatigue vs empathy fatigue

While related, empathy fatigue is distinct from compassion fatigue. 

Empathy fatigue occurs when, despite one’s own wounds being re-triggered by the circumstances, traumas, and pain of others, people feel less able to offer support. 

To understand this distinction, it’s helpful to look at the definitions of both empathy and compassion.

Empathy involves a “vicarious” identification with the thoughts and feelings of another person. Compassion, however, is rooted in the desire to help.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue arise from the desire to help those in pain. But empathy fatigue, in many ways, occurs because one feels the pain so acutely. 

Empathy fatigue is also distinct from burnout, which is a response to consistent and unrelenting chronic stress. Burnout typically arises in response to demanding work environments. It often results in employees feeling less motivated and less satisfied with their performance.

12 symptoms of empathy fatigue

Burnout, empathy fatigue, and compassion fatigue share many of the same symptoms. Often they manifest as thoughts and beliefs.

They can also manifest as emotional exhaustion or physical exhaustion. Often, there is a significant overlap in symptoms. 

For example, someone with empathy burnout may feel exhausted because they aren’t sleeping. This can cause them to feel distracted and disengaged during the day. It can also prompt them to feel unsatisfied with their job performance and to be short-tempered with their coworkers

Below are 12 symptoms of empathy fatigue.

  1. Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, powerless to help others — “What’s the point?”
  1. Feeling angry, irritable, anxious, tense — “Can’t you see I’ve got enough on my plate?”
  1. Feeling detached, unable to identify with others, emotionally, physically, or psychologically numb — “Bad things happen all the time — why should I care?”
  1. Reduced empathy, inability to react to bad news or support others — “I don’t have the space to listen to this right now."

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  1. Ruminating (dwelling on) negative thoughts or feelings — “I can’t stand feeling like this.”
  1. Blaming oneself for failures and the pain of others — “If I had done more, this wouldn’t have happened.”
  1. Reduced self-efficacy and faith in one’s ability to succeed — “Why should I bother?”
  1. Nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, and mental exhaustion
  1. Inability to focus on work, conversations, or daily activities
  1. Lack of pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyable
  1. Lack of participation in or even avoidance of work
  1. Hypersensitivity to perceived criticism

Why is empathy fatigue becoming a more common issue?

A single stressor, like illness, job loss, or grief from the death of a loved one, can rock you to your core. Multiple stressors, especially all at once, can make you feel like you’re drowning. 

Balancing the responsibilities of work life and family life has never been easy. But the past year has been uniquely challenging

A once-in-a-generation health crisis caused underlying tensions in social justice, economic uncertainty, and relationships of all kinds to bubble up. It also caused political ideologies to explode, unable to be contained any longer by people that were already stretched to their breaking point. 

Human beings don’t enjoy uncertainty and disequilibrium. Abraham Maslow noted that humans thrive when our basic needs for survival — safety and sustenance — are met.

But when people are fighting for their basic needs while still needing to nurture their families and careers, this results in added stress

We understand that we can’t control everything that happens to us or our loved ones. But confronting that idea can trigger something of an existential crisis. We cling to the idea of control as a way to make ourselves feel more secure. 

However, when so many circumstances and stresses hit us all at once, we tend to shut down and check out.

What triggers empathy fatigue?

It’s true that those in caregiving professions are more likely to experience empathy fatigue. However, not everyone who cares for others full-time goes through it. What makes the difference between those who deal with empathy burnout and those who don’t?

There are four main factors that increase susceptibility to empathy exhaustion:

1. Lack of self-awareness 

Caregivers often suppress their need for rest, preferring to put the needs of others ahead of their own. While this is noble, it is impossible to continue pouring from an empty cup. 

Caregivers who neglect their personal needs are at high risk for physical and emotional exhaustion.

2. Poorly-set boundaries 

Not effectively setting boundaries at work and in relationships is a major factor that contributes to empathy fatigue. Compromising one's time off can quickly lead to negative emotions such as resentment, an early indicator of fatigue. 

Unfortunately, with the lines between work and home becoming more unclear, boundaries can be hard to maintain.

3. Sudden sense of loss

Whether it’s a job, home, or someone you know, a loss can upend your sense of stability. 

Without tools to process the grief, many turn to work or other responsibilities to give themselves a sense of normalcy. Without dealing with the loss, they are likely to put their emotional health at risk.

4. Multiple stressors

A person may be doing well under one set of pressures and stumble when those challenges compound. This is because we all have a finite amount of energy and resources to meet our day-to-day responsibilities. Circumstances that would be an obstacle by themselves seem overwhelming when we already feel depleted.

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Few of us have the luxury of deferring life’s challenges to a later date. However, that doesn’t mean that we’re powerless to control how we respond (and whether or not we reach a burnout point). 

Remember, there are those who thrive even as they navigate the most demanding roles and formidable situations.

How to overcome and treat empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue

The causes of empathy and compassion fatigue are nuanced, and there’s no one “right way” to recover. However, the first step you should take is to put yourself in a place where you can hear what you need in order to function at your best. 

Those that are tasked with caring for others often feel like they don’t have time for themselves. However, it is an undeniable truth that you cannot serve others to the best of your ability if you feel worn down or disconnected. 

Therefore, the best place to start — particularly if your work depends on your ability to empathize with others — is to take care of yourself

As Professor Stebnicki observes, the ability to overcome empathy fatigue “involves an ongoing commitment to self-care, wellness, and conscious awareness of one’s empathy fatigue triggers.”

10 ways to treat empathy fatigue

Let’s explore some daily things you can do to cope with empathy fatigue.

1. Recognize what’s happening

The first step is the awareness that what you’re experiencing doesn’t have to be permanent. Giving yourself the space to acknowledge how you’re feeling can be powerful in the healing process. 

Refrain from judging the experience as good or bad — it’s just how you feel. Work on your emotional intelligence so that you can be more aware of your emotions and regulate them accordingly.

2. Practice mindfulness

As we go through our day, we’re often completing one task while thinking of another. Try bringing your attention to each task that you’re doing. By staying present, you’ll connect to your body’s signals for care and reduce mental clutter. 

Practicing mindfulness helps with developing other coping skills. For example, you may notice what your fatigue triggers are and where you may need additional support.

3. Take some time off

If you can, take some time away from your work, obligations, or even your family. It may feel good to escape from the constant pressure or demands. This is particularly true if your empathy fatigue is related to caring for others

If you can’t take a day (or more) off, infuse your day with several two-minute micro breaks.

4. Ask for help

T.A. Webb said, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” Reach out to your support system (whether that's family, friends, or colleagues) and see what you can take off your plate. 

Use time blocking to divide your day into smaller blocks of time. Then track how you spend your time for a week or so. You may find that there are things you don’t need to do at all. 

5. Connect to a bigger picture

Human connection is important. But empathy burnout can cause you to lose sight of how you connect to others and to the work that you do. 

Re-establish your connection by volunteering, making new friends, or doing some continuing education. Rediscovering why you do what you do can reignite the passion for doing it.

6. Have fun!

Chances are, if you’re feeling burnt out, you’re sorely lacking in laughter and enjoyment. It may be hard to think of anything fun to do, so keep a list or ask a friend for suggestions.

7. Try something new

Similar to having fun, teaching yourself a new skill brings out the inner child in us — and it’s wonderfully healthy for your brain. 

Learning something new slows aging. As an added benefit, it often gives you a new way of thinking about challenges that may have blocked you for some time.

8. Put away your phone

In an ever-connected world, putting down our devices can trigger a flurry of anxious feelings. But, as it turns out, so does spending all day tethered to your phone. 

If you struggle to “log-off,” try starting small. For example, take one five-minute tech-free break every day.

9. Talk to a professional

Compassion fatigue and burnout are risk factors for other conditions, like depression and anxiety

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If you feel like your symptoms are affecting your day-to-day life, reach out to a coach or mental health professional.

10. Get back to the basics

Very few of us feel like we’re at our best when we’re tired or hungry. If you’re feeling low, try looking at your routine to ensure that you’re getting adequate quality sleep, nutrition, water, and exercise. Often in professionals and people who experience empathy fatigue, one (or more) of those are lacking. 

Taking care of your most fundamental needs may be just the thing to get you feeling like yourself again. It can also help to ward off both compassion fatigue and empathy fatigue. 

Seek help for empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue

It’s not just healthcare workers and caregivers who require empathy to perform well in their jobs. In today’s world, it’s more important than ever for leaders to be empathetic toward their teams. Empathy and compassion are important qualities to have in any workplace environment.

If you’d like to turn your empathy and compassion fatigue into compassion satisfaction, don’t hesitate to seek help. 

Get in touch with a BetterUp coach today.

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Published December 8, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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