Compassion Fatigue vs. Burnout: How To Tell The Difference & Spot The Signs

As we head into year three of the pandemic, burnout and compassion fatigue continue to rise. The past two years have introduced new demands on employees, both at home and in the workplace, and work-life balance has never been more critical. 9 out of 10 employees say that burnout is an issue in their lives. 

HR leaders are tasked with helping employees stay mentally well, engaged, and productive during an unprecedented time of heightened stress, loss, and adversity. There has never been a need for employers to listen and respond to mental health needs as in the last two years.

In addition, HR leaders are under undue pressure to attract new talent as resignation rates soar. These challenges are not only leading to burnout but also compassion fatigue. When HR professionals no longer feel empowered as helpers in their workplaces or that they’re unable to make a difference due to barriers beyond their control, they can develop compassion fatigue.

Because the signs of compassion fatigue are similar to symptoms of burnout, it is difficult to identify exactly what’s causing these mental health issues in many employees. Let’s look at how to distinguish the two.

What Is the Difference Between Compassion Fatigue and Burnout?

Compassion fatigue is a form of burnout unique to professionals whose work involves caretaking or providing emotional support to others. Before COVID-19, compassion fatigue was a term mostly applied to physicians, health care workers, behavioral health professionals, counselors, and social workers. And it’s a concern for HR professionals as well. 

HR leaders and staff have traditionally operated from “compassion satisfaction,” or positive feelings derived from helping others. Compassion satisfaction includes positive relationships with colleagues and a conviction that one’s work makes a meaningful contribution. Compassion satisfaction is maintained by feeling empowered as helpers. 

Compassion fatigue happens when a professional becomes depleted from repeated exposure to another person’s chronic adversity or traumatic stress. HR leaders are naturally compassionate and empathetic. Without training on how to refrain from taking on the stress and trauma of their team as they navigate working through a pandemic, HR professionals’ energy and engagement wanes. 

HR professionals can also face their own mental health crises due to the vicarious trauma they absorb, especially while navigating their own responses to the ongoing adversities from the pandemic. 

HR leaders without mental health resources at their disposal are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue. In addition, compassion fatigue impacts HR team members who are naturally empathetic, have not developed adequate coping mechanisms, and/or whose organization lacks work-life balance. These factors can lead to exhaustion, weariness and often cause affected professionals to shut down. 

From this perspective, it’s important to recognize that shutting down due to compassion fatigue is a means of self-preservation. It’s a way of turning “off” a system that has been running on overdrive and has hit its limit. But, unfortunately, shutting off compassion goes entirely against the deeply embedded values of most HR employees, leading to a sense of self-devaluation and guilt that only intensifies the experience of compassion fatigue.

The most common signs of compassion fatigue are: 

  • Insomnia and other sleeping problems
  • Intrusive and/or negative thoughts
  • Hypervigilance
  • Anxiety
  • Isolation and disconnection
  • Substance abuse
  • Changes in appetite
  • Irritability and depression
  • Increased cynicism, negativity, and apathy

Burnout is similar to compassion fatigue in that it shows many of the same symptoms. In addition to irritability and depression, anxiety, cynicism, apathy, insomnia, and substance abuse, burnout can lead to many physical problems like a weakened immune system, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. In addition, burnout reflects work-related hopelessness and feelings of inefficacy. 

Compared to compassion fatigue, burnout does not necessarily stem from extending oneself beyond their capacity to help others or the overwhelming emotions that result from taking on others’ adversities. 

But even though they share many symptoms, it’s vital to identify whether employees are experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue because they require different approaches to preventing and solving them. 

Burnout Is a Result of Job-Related Stress

Burnout is commonly understood as a stress condition brought on by being involved in an intense situation for an extended period without enough rest and recreation.

Common organizational challenges that can undermine job satisfaction and lead to burnout include a lack of recognition or resources to meet job responsibilities and increased demand for results. Burnout is something that employees across all industries and professions can experience. 

Compassion fatigue is a specific form of burnout from a professional’s deep investment in aiding others. Vicarious trauma, sometimes called secondary traumatic stress, happens when professionals are repeatedly exposed to others’ stress from traumatic events. Witnessing employees navigate stressful events due to COVID-19 can cause secondary traumatic stress symptoms if they overwhelm your natural capacity to cope.  

On the other hand, burnout emerges as a reaction to occupational stress and being overworked. It typically results in physical and emotional exhaustion, helplessness, disengagement, and demoralization/hopelessness. 

Many employees with burnout decide that they just don’t like their jobs. Employees who suffer from compassion fatigue, on the other hand, may still love their job, yet, they feel burnt out. They typically think they should be trying harder; they may believe their burnout is somehow their fault.

How to Address Burnout and Compassion Fatigue in the Workplace

Burnout and compassion fatigue aren’t just problems for the employee–they affect a company’s bottom line. The stress from demands at work cost US companies $48 billion each year in mental health spending. In addition, fatigue, anxiety, depression, and burnout all lead to decreased productivity, absenteeism, presenteeism, and high turnover rates. 

So leaders must adopt strategies to support the mental well-being of all team members. To do this, team members should know how to identify and understand the differences and similarities between burnout and compassion fatigue. 

Here’s how leaders can do this. 

Identify which employees may be susceptible to burnout and which ones may be susceptible to compassion fatigue. 

Consider the whole picture of team members. Does their job require them to offer others emotional support? Are they tasked with improving the well-being of others? Are they in a position to take on others’ stress? This person has the potential to develop compassion fatigue.

Or is the employee working long hours? Have they recently taken on new responsibilities due to COVID-19 demands or the loss of a coworker? Are they being under-compensated for their workload? Are they missing the tools they need to do their job? All of these factors can quickly lead to burnout.

Mitigate how the work environment directly leads to burnout or compassion fatigue. 

Long hours and a poor work-life balance are common culprits. It’s up to leadership to model time boundaries and offer flexibility and time off when needed to meet the demands of the lives of each team member. 

Excessive workloads and unrealistic deadlines are uniquely common to the pandemic. Many employees have had no choice but to shoulder the workloads of coworkers who have left seeking new opportunities. Employees should be given adequate time and resources to do their job and compensated for their responsibilities. 

A dysfunctional work environment leads to burnout and high turnover. To avoid this, leadership should make all responsibilities clearly defined. First, your organization should train leaders to coach effectively and how to ask for and give both positive and corrective feedback. 

Next, leaders should learn how unconscious bias undermines their ability to lead their employees and can even adversely affect the mental health of their employees. Last, they should be open to discussing mental health at work as a tactic to create an open culture around well-being and burnout. 

The best way to prevent compassion fatigue is to train employees to identify and cope with work stress.

70% of employees recognize mental health as a workplace issue. Training all team members on mental health, stress management, including setting healthy boundaries, serves two purposes. First, it teaches employees how to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue, increasing productivity and performance. Second, it destigmatizes mental health in the workplace, making employees more likely to stay in their jobs. 

Providing support to employees is the best way to improve their health, which improves the company’s health. 

If members of your organization are experiencing compassion fatigue, check out Pathways on-demand webinar designed for HR professionals: Understanding and Overcoming Compassion Fatigue. This webinar teaches your HR team how to identify, cope with, and, more importantly, prevent compassion fatigue in themselves and team members. 


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