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Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: What You Need to Know to Prevent It

Understanding the Onset

There are many aspects that typically contribute to burnout and compassion fatigue emerging such as:

  • Ongoing stress of a job

  • Trying to keep up with an unrealistic pace or expectations

  • Continuous busy schedule

  • Taking on the stressors of others

Burnout and compassion fatigue can be difficult to navigate once they are in full swing because there are no quick fixes like taking the day off to sleep or relax. Instead, it takes a lifestyle change to recover from long-term stresses.

Furthermore, there is a new cause that many have overlooked. Many aspects of our day-to-day lives have changed due to the pandemic, and in several ways, we are still trying to keep up.

Not only do you experience the above but add on the changes due to COVID-19, the lockdown, etc. which has made our environment increasingly stressful and resulted in a domino effect. As a result, the concept of compassion fatigue and burnout have evolved—they are different than what they have been in the past.

Normal stresses of the day—such as traffic, deadlines, unanticipated changes, responsibilities—have morphed into much more. For instance, there is a greater need to fill positions in certain industries, though the demand has remained the same or increased. Consequently, employees find themselves trying to compensate for the lack of support. Expectations to manage the demand are greater and stress has increased while the ability to keep up the ever-growing pace is decreasing.

This is similar to college students who struggle to adjust to an environment in which they were isolated from others, experiencing frequent changes in routine and schedules, and typical days off such as spring break were eliminated due to the pandemic. While the classwork and expectations on campus remained the same, typical coping skills and support systems diminished which is an unhealthy combination.

A theme has surfaced in many circumstances: the demand and expectation of you are greater though you don’t have the capability to provide more of yourself with current conditions.

Have you found yourself saying the following?

  • “I don’t think I can keep up with this pace.”

  • “I am exhausted all the time.”

  • "I’m not sure I can do this anymore.”

If you have asked these questions—then keep reading!

What is Burnout

Burnout is typically the result of chronic or prolonged stress which leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. Not only is burnout due to chronic stress, but burnout can also be brought on due to unhealthy characteristics such as a negative mindset or unhealthy thinking patterns and even perfectionism.

Burnout has a combination of physical symptoms, emotional exhaustion or depletion, and decreased performance as a result. There is a key difference between compassion fatigue and burnout—burnout is typically developed over a slower period of time, rather than a quick onset which means it can be difficult to notice if you don’t know what you are looking for. Keep in mind, there can be a slower recovery time if it isn’t identified quickly.

How Does It Happen?

As mentioned previously, burnout is often due to chronic stress. However, it is important to note that due to the pandemic, healthy outlets, coping skills, and social support dwindled leading to many experiencing burnout at a similar point in time.

Many struggled to find alternatives to not attending concerts, movie theaters, sporting events, traveling, gatherings with family or friends—which is a major life change. Now consider different personalities such as extroverts who thrive and recharge in certain environments but were not getting that opportunity. So, while stress increased, there was a lack of typical outlets or ability to release that stress.

What Are the Signs of Burnout?

Now you know what burnout is, but do you know how to recognize it?

Burnout can present itself in several ways. It is important to be aware of what the signs can look like in order to identify them before they interfere with daily life.

Burnout may look like an individual who is beginning to dislike their job, feels less motivated, or feels incapable of performing how they normally would.

The following are a few signs of burnout:

  • Fatigue

  • Withdrawal/isolation

  • Negative mindset or perspective

  • Frustration or anger

  • Decreased self-awareness/going through the motions

  • Loss of interest

  • Hopelessness

What is Compassion Fatigue?

As human beings, we tend to care about those closest to us whether that be our parents or siblings, a best friend, significant other, or even clients at work. However, that means that we do not only ride the highs with them, but we can experience those low points with them as well. Unfortunately, when you experience negative emotions from more than one person for an extended period, it can be difficult to manage or cope.

Compassion fatigue is often characterized as secondary traumatic stress which can occur most often when helping others who are in need. Compassion fatigue and burnout have similar aspects. However, compassion fatigue can have more of an unexpected onset while burnout develops slowly over time. Therefore, while there are signs of compassion fatigue to be aware of, it is still possible for it to develop quickly without warning signs.

How Does It Happen?

Compassion fatigue can develop in several different environments without you realizing. While there may not always be concrete signs of the onset, there are scenarios or circumstances that can lead to it.

Boundary crossing is one way that compassion fatigue can begin to surface. Due to the pandemic, people are boundary crossing more than ever. Typical examples of boundary crossing are working after hours, having your work email buzzing on your phone while with family, stepping away from your downtime or self-care activity for others calling to vent, consistently being the mediator for friends or family. Furthermore, due to the pandemic, work-from-home is an option which means boundary crossing is even more likely to happen. Of course, there are times when it is necessary to tend to work or help a friend, but what boundaries do you have to protect yourself?

Other circumstances that can lead to compassion fatigue include the following:

  • Being exposed to trauma frequently.

  • Having a lack of healthy breaks or time off.

  • As mentioned, working from home often leads to boundary-crossing.

  • Hearing the news and taking in negativity.

What Are the Signs of Compassion Fatigue?

Although there can be signs of compassion fatigue, remember that the onset can still develop without any obvious signs as well. The following are a few indications of compassion fatigue to be cognizant of:

  • Decreased empathy or an empathetic response

  • Detachment or isolation from others

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Reduced range of emotions

  • Exhaustion or irritability

How to Manage Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Burnout and compassion fatigue can be difficult to manage because there are no simple or quick fixes. It takes techniques, time, and consistency to make efficient life changes in order to recover from either one.

Therefore, rather than focusing on what to do to fix it, the aim is to focus on having to take preventative measures so you do not experience it.

There are several preventative measures that keep you from spiraling and experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue. Look back at the previous scenarios—whether you work from home, are a college student without coping skills, taking on the responsibility of compensating for the lack of employees at work, or being the “therapist” for your friends and family. Do any of those relate to you? If so, you may be at risk of experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue.

However, if you can begin to recognize what you need and implement healthy changes, you can begin taking the proper precautions.

Below are a few examples of the preventative measures you can take to reduce the risk of burnout or compassion fatigue:

  1. Determine and establish the necessary boundaries.

  2. Set aside time for self-care.

  3. Set reminders on your calendar to reflect on your own needs.

  4. Use body scans, journaling, or activities that increase self-awareness.

  5. If access to your typical coping skills has diminished, search for new outlets, activities, or coping skills to try.

  6. Evaluate and develop healthier social support if necessary.

A licensed mental health professional or online counselor can assist you in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward if you feel like you are struggling to establish the necessary preventative measures. Reach out today!

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About Sam Nabil

Sam Nabil is the founder of Naya Clinics and is a Boston therapist and a Boston Marriage Counselor.

Sam offers therapy in Boston and Boston Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety. Sam Nabil was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English, The Washington post, The Boston Globe, Fatherly magazine, Women's health magazine, Cornell university, Yahoo News, USA Today,

Naya Clinics is a top-rated Marriage Counseling, therapy and Life coaching practice.

Naya Clinics offers Marriage Counselors near me, individual therapy near me, and life coaching near me in various locations across the USA and the world. Naya Clinics also offers Online marriage counseling, online therapy, and online life coaching.

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