Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson you'll learn how two commonly interchanged words are similar yet very different in some ways. These terms are compassion fatigue and burnout.

Stress At Work

Pretty much everyone gets stressed at work. Some stress is normal. In fact, some stress is really good, as it can propel you to greater heights and keep you going through tough times. Of course, the exact opposite can also happen. Your job can take a serious toll on your well-being, so much so that you experience burnout or compassion fatigue.

These two terms, although sometimes used interchangeably, are not the same. While their definitions can vary, this lesson takes a look at a commonly accepted way of characterizing and distinguishing these two forms of job-related stress.

What Is Burnout?

Let's say you work in a hospital. You start out working there with bright eyes and bright dreams. However, over time you notice that the work starts to take a toll on you. In fact, you can pinpoint the reasons why.

Recently, there have been a lot of layoffs. You're completely short-staffed, and as a result your personal workload increases. This causes a lot of conflict between you and your co-workers as well. Then, you notice that your managers are beginning to make decisions that don't take your personal life or feelings into account. You have to work night shifts and weekends when you were never supposed to. And to top it all off, the hospital is experiencing a budget shortfall. At first, this means you have fewer supplies with which to work with. Later on it means your salary is slashed.

Any of these situations alone are stressful, but you've got them all to deal with at once. As a result, you first begin to withdraw. Then, you notice you're no longer as empathetic as you used to be. Finally, you decide to leave.

This entire scenario is representative of burnout, which:

  • Is reactional. In other words, it occurs as a response to some sort of work-related stressors like the ones this scenario identified. Your initial career-related goals have clearly not been met as a result of this situation and this can lead to burnout.
  • Occurs gradually when compared to compassion fatigue.
  • Leads to: withdrawal, fatigue, frustration, powerlessness, decreased empathy, and lowered morale in the employee, as well as higher turnover in the workplace as a whole.

Compassion Fatigue

So how does burnout compare to compassion fatigue? Well, let's paint another scenario. Let's rewind the clock. It's your first week again and you have bright eyes and bright dreams.

You are assigned to work with a terminally ill patient whom you've begun to consider a good friend. You can see how much the person is suffering, yet you are powerless to do anything about it. The family pleads with you, but there's only so much you can do. The children cry, the siblings get angry, and the patient is clearly in a lot of pain.

And this isn't the only patient of yours like this. Many of your patients are in the same predicament. This takes a toll on you. At first, you make it a personal mission to give your all to the patient and their family. It is your duty, you believe! But within a short time, you notice that your emotional and physical tank is empty, you feel powerless, hopeless, and much more.

This is an example of compassion fatigue, which:

  • Is relational. In other words, this occurs as a result of your personal care for someone who is suffering (this includes dealing with their family as well). It has less to do with career related goals and more to do with a perceived 'failure' of your caretaking strategies and rescue goals.
  • Occurs more acutely, or suddenly, rather than gradually.
  • Leads to: guilt, negative stress, a feeling of powerlessness, frustration, lowered morale, and a feeling of being depleted. It also can lead to higher turnover in the workplace.

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