Empathy and compassion fatigue are more common than you think

May 4, 2021 - 16 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

10 ways to treat empathy fatigue

Although it’s usually associated with caregivers, empathy 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 the two. 

When you’re responsible for other people, you’re susceptible to “emotional contagion” — that is, being affected by the feelings and experiences of another. 

However, like any other stressor, constant exposure can result in fatigue as well as other adverse physical and mental reactions. If you’ve found yourself simply unable to “care” anymore, chances are, you’ve experienced 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, he found that empathy fatigue was a unique concern for counselors and others in what he termed “high-touch” professions, those who rely on their emotional connection to their clients and patients to perform their jobs. 

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 workers, coaches, and teachers. 

Empathy fatigue is compounded when individuals have other stressors. These stressors include at-home caregiving roles or a front-row seat to a global health crisis.

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Compassion fatigue vs empathy fatigue

While related, empathy fatigue is distinct from compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue is when a person feels motivated to always help those that struggle with physical or emotional wounds. 

Empathy fatigue occurs when one’s own wounds are re-triggered by the circumstances, traumas, and pain of others. 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.

While compassion fatigue arises from the desire to help those in pain, 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 stress. Burnout typically arises in response to demanding work environments. It often results in employees feeling less motivated and less satisfied with their overall performance.

12 symptoms of empathy fatigue

  1. Burnout, empathy fatigue, and compassion fatigue share many of the same symptoms. Often they manifest as cognitive (thoughts & beliefs).

    They can also manifest as emotional (the way you feel), physical (a sense of being “run-down”), or behavioral (how you interact with others). Often, there is 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 be short-tempered with their coworkers. Below are 12 symptoms of empathy fatigue.

    Symptoms of empathy fatigue include:

    1. Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, powerless to help others — “What’s the point?”

    2. Feeling angry, irritable, anxious, tense — “Can’t you see I’ve got enough on my plate?

    3. Feeling detached, unable to identify with others, emotionally, physically, or psychologically numb — “Bad things happen all the time — why should I care?

    4. Reduced empathy, inability to react to bad news or support others — “I don’t have the space to listen to this right now."

    5. Ruminating (dwelling on) negative thoughts or feelings — “I can’t stand feeling like this.”

    6. Blaming oneself for failures and the pain of others — “If I had done more, this wouldn’t have happened.”

    7. Reduced self-efficacy and faith in one’s ability to succeed — “Why should I bother?”

    8. Nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and insomnia

    9. Inability to focus on work, conversations, or daily activities

    10. Lack of pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyable

    11. Lack of participation in or even avoidance of work

    12. Hypersensitivity to perceived criticism

Why is empathy fatigue becoming a more common issue?

A single stressor, like illness, job loss, or 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. 

While balancing the responsibilities of work and family life have never been easy, the past year was 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. Although we understand that we can’t control everything that happens to us or our loved ones, 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 internal cues for rest and overwhelm, 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. Too-loose boundaries. 

Not enforcing limits around work or social demands is a major factor that contributes to empathy fatigue. Compromising one's time off can quickly lead to 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 become emotionally drained.

4. Multiple stressors.

A person may be doing well under one set of pressures and stumble when those challenges compound. 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.

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

How to overcome and treat empathy fatigue

The causes of empathy fatigue are nuanced and there’s no one “right way” to recover. However, it’s likely that the first step you should take is putting yourself in a place — mentally, physically, and emotionally — 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

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.

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, particularly 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 breaks.

4. Ask for help.

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

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.

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, visiting friends, playing with children, or even 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, trying something new brings out the inner child in us — and it’s wonderfully healthy for your brain. Learning something new actually 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, taking one five-minute tech-free break every day.

9. Talk to a professional.

Empathy exhaustion, compassion fatigue, and burnout are risk factors for other conditions, like depression and anxiety. If you feel like your symptoms are affecting your day-to-day life or relationships with others, 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 sleep, nutrition, water, and exercise. Often in professionals and people who experience empathy fatigue, one (or more) of those is 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 and empathy fatigue.languishing-webinar-cta

Published May 4, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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