It’s Not Just Burnout: HR Is Experiencing Compassion Fatigue

HR teams have been the “invisible first responders” of the last year and a half, supporting employees through numerous crises. Unfortunately, the effects of the past year have left HR teams feeling stressed and emotionally exhausted. What human resources teams are experiencing is not quite burnout, but something similar: compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a condition often experienced by people who work in the helping professions such as doctors, nurses, teachers, HR professionals, and social workers. It occurs when an individual reaches a point of diminished capacity to empathize or care about others due to the constant exposure to other's pain.

Once a term only mainly used in human service industries, HR professionals are now experiencing compassion fatigue at a drastically higher rate. Compassion fatigue is what some describe as the “cost of caring” for others who are in emotional or psychological pain.

The symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Feelings of detachment, hopelessness, emotional numbing, and general anxiety.
  • Lacking empathy, which can lead to a lack of motivation and feeling disconnected from others.
  • Increased alcohol and drug abuse, as well as risk-taking behavior and aggression.
  • Decreased productivity and the ability to focus

The Current State: HR is Not Okay

Surveys conducted over the last six months have revealed a startling trend in HR. A study by Lattice found that 90% of HR professionals reported that their stress levels increased in the last year. 

In addition, 60% of the same respondents cited “emotional exhaustion” as their biggest challenge. Another report indicated that 71% of HR team members said 2020 was the most stressful year of their career. 

While employees across all industries have reported increased stress recently, HR professionals are experiencing these challenges at significantly higher rates. Additionally,  HR is one of the only professions outside of healthcare to list "emotional exhaustion" as their biggest challenge. 

This dramatic rise in stress has to do with HR teams’ challenges in the last 16 months. So with that in mind, it’s easy to see why HR is experiencing compassion fatigue. 

Compassion Fatigue from Crisis Response

In the last 16 months, HR teams had to take on more responsibility, especially when caring for colleagues. Of course, caring for coworkers isn’t a new task for human resource management. However, the sheer volume of crises and those in need of compassion have made the responsibility more challenging for HR professionals. 

This year, changes to HR management included significant differences in our working environments, compensation, benefits, and changes to employment laws. In addition,  HR teams have dealt with concerns about recent racial injustices, helping colleagues cope with their mental health, isolation, and grief. 

During the onset of COVID-19, many human resources departments were responsible for terminating employees that companies laid off. All of this adds on top of the personal challenges each HR member may be experiencing. 

Any of those things alone would have been incredibly challenging for HR, let alone managing all of them at once. So it’s no wonder our human resources departments are struggling with the recent, more complicated aspects of employee relations. It’s been exhausting, and HR teams are feeling something different than regular burnout. Instead, they’re experiencing compassion fatigue. 

Compassion Fatigue from Continuous Caregiving

While the term may be new to HR, compassion fatigue has existed for decades in caregiving jobs. However, the events of 2020 changed the nature of HR, requiring them to take on a caregiver role. After a year of increased work demands, it is no wonder HR professionals are experiencing compassion fatigue. 

Compassion fatigue isn’t just burnout— it can feel similar but presents differently. Burnout and compassion fatigue, in some cases, can be co-occurring. Symptoms of compassion fatigue come from continuous exposure to others’ distress.

Developing compassion fatigue leads to a sense of numbness or a decreased ability to express compassion over time. Feeling this way is especially painful to HR professionals as they’re typically empathetic by nature. 

Compassion fatigue can present in different ways. It stems from feeling responsible for others’ struggles, leading you to feel like you’ve run out of compassion to give. The best way to cope with compassion fatigue isn’t revolutionary but does require intentional behavior to counteract its effects. 

Preventing compassion fatigue is sometimes uncomfortable for HR professionals— this is primarily due to their inclination to put others first. Preventing compassion fatigue is similar to the safety protocol of securing your oxygen mask before helping others. This approach makes sense logically, but it’s not the first instinct for those who are empathetic by nature. 

Combating Compassion Fatigue

If your HR team is looking for ways to manage compassion fatigue, watch our webinar and explore HR-related compassion fatigue, how to identify it, and how to cope effectively as HR specialists. Learn how HR can better care for themselves and their team members from Pathways' behavioral health experts. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis beyond compassion fatigue, please seek help via the 24-hour national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP or find a mental health care provider here


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