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Workplace Burnout and Compassion Fatigue

by Paul G. Knight on January 28, 2021

Comparative review of two concepts that some folks have been asking me about.  These two concepts are: “workplace burn-out” and “compassion Fatigue.”  You may be asking why the interests in ‘burn-out” and “compassion fatigue?”

Perhaps this narrative will shed some insight into the impetus for this topic. 

When year 2019 ended many of us celebrated the end of 2019 and ushered in January 1, 2020 with “excitement and hope” for a brighter future as the year unfolded.  We assumed that life as we had chartered for our families would continue without interruption.  There was little thought that “hard work, dedication and the focus on the comforts and rewards that come from our tolls of a strong “work ethic,” would suddenly change.  However, as 2020 began to emerge our life styles of comfort, freedom and certainty of health, became of great concern.  Hence, our life styles would change.  The daily routines of work life, school attendance for our children, social interaction even when and how to attend worship services presented new challenges as we faced “dark” days to accept a changed “life style.”

The freedom of living life fully, as accustomed, would include restrictions and limitations with new rules of social interaction and engagement.  All aspects of daily routines would change for all of us.  The circumstances of “health necessity” dictated new rules for social gatherings, shopping, interaction and participation in family life, as with friends, society in general, community institutions, schools, government, work and church.  Our comfort and security as to how we would participate in day-to-day life as we knew it was suddenly interrupted  and in some aspects changed. 

Prior to restrictions placed on us in 2020, no one considered that our long held value of “individual drive” to “work-hard,” our motivation and determination for achievement to succeed in planned endeavors (which are good traits), would be challenged.  The underpinning tenets of the “American Work Ethic,” would be challenged as COVID-19 began to rapidly make its devasting presence known.

Some may be asking, what does this narrative on “work burn-out” and “compassion fatigue” have to do with COVID-19 health issues in 2020?   As we analyze some of the issues that have dictated that families have to accept new challenges which created added “stress” as interruptions to a very active and busy family dynamic meant loss of control. These new changes to daily routines have caused “loss.”  Some of these changes,  such as simply securing adequate child care, a family support system,  ushered in working at home as a necessity,  having to educate our children at home, social restrictions, isolation from functions, all which may contribute to the topics of  “burn out and “compassion fatigue.”

This narrative will address the terms “work-burn-out” and “compassion fatigue.”  We will address a comparative discussion, hopefully to share insight and understanding of these two different positions.  If you need more insight to assist you.  Please contact Susan Butler in the Pastoral Counseling Ministry Office at 803-782-1300 to schedule time with one of our counselors.

Please note: “Burn-Out” is not a medical diagnosis.  While not classified as a disease or a medical condition, “work- place- burn-out” is nonetheless a well-defined syndrome according to the “World Health Organization” (WHO).  The term first appeared in the literature of American Industry in the 1950’s.

The question:  What is “work-burn-out?”  It is a state of mind that can negatively affect your work and social life.   “Work-Burn-Out” is the loss of meaning in one’s work.  Coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion  resulting from long term, “unresolved stress.”  Why does burn-out occur? Research indicates that “a person being under constant pressure to achieve, with few opportunities to take real breaks from work, can add to a person’s level of stress.”  This can make a person feel over-whelmed and more likely contributes to a person reaching “burn-out” stage.

According to WHO burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic work place stress that has not been successfully managed.  Burn-out has three characteristics: (1) Feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion; (2) Increased mental distance from one’s job or negativity or cynicism about one’s job; and (3) Reduced professional performance.

Some of the possible causes of “work-place- Burn-Out:  (1)  Lack of control – inability to influence decisions that effect the job; (2) Unclear job expectations; (3) Dysfunctional work place dynamics; (4) Extremes of activity-monotony, chaotic conditions; (5) Lack of social support, feelings of isolation at work and in personal life; (6) Work-life imbalance.

To compare the newer concept “compassion fatigue” to “work place burn-out, research indicates that “compassion fatigue” is not the same as “work place burn-out.”  According to research compassion- Fatigue is very different from “Work Place Burn-Out.”  “It is a state of tension and preoccupation with the individual or cumulative trauma of clients as manifested in one or more ways including re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance/numbing of reminders of the event, and persistent arousal.”  Figley (1982) defined compassion fatigue: “The cost of caring for others in emotional and or physical pain.”

Psychology Today and other research indicates that, “people whose professions lead to prolonged exposure to other people’s trauma can be open to compassion fatigue, known as secondary or vicarious trauma; they can experience acute symptoms that put their physical and mental health at risk making them wary of giving and caring.”

Symptoms of compassion fatigue have been described as: (1) Chronic physical and emotional exhaustion; (2) Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic or caregiver relationship; (3) Irritability; (4) Feelings of self-contempt; (5) Difficulty sleeping; (6) Weight loss; (7) Headaches; and (8) Poor job performance.

The signs of caregiver stress are described: (1) Feeling overwhelmed or constantly worried; (2) Feeling tired often; (3) Getting too much sleep or not enough; (4) Gaining or losing weight; (5) Becoming easily irritated or angry; (6) Losing interests in activities you used to enjoy; (7) Feeling sad, and (8) Having frequent headaches, bodily pains or other symptoms.

How do you prevent compassion fatigue from happening?  Mayo Clinic makes suggestions: (1) Get educated; (2) Practice self-care; (3) Set emotional  boundaries; (4) Engage in outside hobbies; (5) Cultivate healthy relationships outside of work; (6) Keep a journal; (7) Boost your resiliency; (8) Use Positive coping strategies; (9) Identify strategies that are beneficial- join a support group(s), regular breaks, take mental  health days; (10) Seek personal therapy; (11) Relaxation techniques, time-out rooms, massage therapy, etc.

The big question other than those in mental health and medical care who are those needing care?  Some  needing care are: An Ill spouse, a disabled child, an aging parent or other relative.

Mayo Clinic offers these tips for self-help:  (1) Care giver must take steps to preserve your own health and well-being; (2) Accept and identify self as a caregiver; (3) Be willing to accept help; (4) Set realistic goals; (5) Get  connected to resources in community; (6) Join a support group; (7) Seek social support; (8) Set personal health goals; (9) See your doctor.

There are resources that are available in communities, such as respite care.  What is respite care?  Brief interlude for time out and self-care of a care giver.  These may be in-home respite; (other family members provide relief; health care aides; adult day care programs in community; short-term nursing care; and others.)

If you would like to learn more about “work-burn-out” or “compassion-Fatigue,” schedule a time speak to one of our counselors. Contact Susan Butler in the Pastoral Ministry Office at 803-782-1300.


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