Do you frequently find yourself not being able to empathize as readily as before? Do you feel trapped, overwhelmed and/or depressed? These are all classic signs of compassion fatigue.


Often confused with caregiver burnout, compassion fatigue is a secondary traumatic stress disorder that can onset suddenly and lead to an extreme state of stress and tension, resulting in feelings of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism and overall disinterest. Unlike caregiver burnout, which occurs from caregivers and helping professionals being too busy and neglecting their own health, compassion fatigue stems from not being able to remove themselves from their work long enough to recover and revive.

Signs and Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

Oftentimes, the person affected is the last to recognize what is happening. If you think someone is exhibiting signs of compassion fatigue, bringing it to their attention is critical for their mental well-being. So, what are the signs and symptoms to look out for? The list below is not exhaustive, but nonetheless provides a good insight into some of the common manifestations.

Physical manifestations:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Muscle tension
  • Digestive issues
  • Cardiac symptoms

Emotional manifestations:

  • Poor focus
  • Feelings of overwhelmingness
  • Apathy & numbness
  • Addiction & self-medicating
  • Isolation & withdrawal
  • Pessimism
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Irritability & anger
  • Memory issues

Work-Related manifestations:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment & joy
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Avoidance of certain clients
  • Increased absenteeism

Phases of Compassion Fatigue:

Compassion fatigue progresses in four phases, which are the zealot phase, irritability phase, withdrawal phase and zombie phase:

Zealot phase– The individual is committed, involved and available, putting in extra hours and volunteering to help. They may be overly stressed, but they try to make excuses and justify the stress. They also may be noticing some difficult feelings arising, but attempt to dismiss them.

Irritability phase– The individual may start to daydream and become distracted, which can lead to making mistakes and oversights, as well as cutting corners. They may have a change in their personality, such as being more cynical. They also may feel undervalued and under-resourced, and become impatient, irritable, moody and angry.

Withdrawal phase– The individual may not be enthusiastic, and complain of stress and/or fatigue. They may feel tired all the time, and have a poor immune system, leading to frequent illnesses. They may have difficulty concentrating and have confusion, leading to responsibilities blending in with each other and clients becoming difficult to distinguish between. They may start to withdraw, neglect and detach themselves from others. Lastly, they may start to use unhealthy coping mechanisms (e.g. smoking, drinking, self-harming).

Zombie phase– The individual may feel as if they’re on autopilot. They may feel less confident, and notice they’re making more mistakes. They may feel disconnected from themselves, others and their career. They may start to doubt their work abilities. They may feel depleted, numb, apathetic and/or worthless. Continuing from the previous phase, they may start or continue to use unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Preventing Compassion Fatigue:

Because compassion fatigue can onset suddenly, it is crucial to use preventive measures on the individual, professional and organizational levels.

On the individual level, it is essential to make time to do self-care by doing things such as taking frequent breaks throughout the day, asking for help (no matter how big or small it is), managing a work-life balance (e.g. setting boundaries and avoiding overcommitting), joining a wellness/support group, and starting a compliments file (by documenting the great things people say about you to read later).

On the professional level, it is imperative to surround yourself with a supportive network of mentors, collaborative peers and co-workers. Remember, you do not have to struggle alone. It’s also important to seek resources for counseling and/or trainings available at your workplace, in your community, online, et cetera.

On the organizational level, it is paramount to advocate for a healthy work environment by doing things such as recognizing staff members, having open communication between management and staff and having adequate staffing. It’s also crucial to offer flexible hours, employee assistance programs, corporate wellness programs and job sharing in order to create and maintain a supportive environment for workers.

Managing Compassion Fatigue:

As mentioned before, sometimes the person affected doesn’t even realize they are experiencing compassion fatigue. As such, the first important step is awareness, and that can be done through self-awareness or awareness brought on from others. The next steps are to put your wellbeing first through prioritizing self-care, setting boundaries between home and work (such as creating transitions when you come home from work), taking time away from work, refueling, practicing self-compassion and getting professional help.

Because refueling and putting your wellbeing first looks different for everyone, it’s important to consider how you can nourish your mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health on a daily basis that is sustainable and enriching for you. What does self-care look like to you? Maybe it means jamming out to music, or going on short walks daily. Or maybe it means going on adventures to a museum or park on the weekends. Or maybe it means treating yourself with takeout food. Regardless of how you do self-care, it’s important to stay connected to meanings and ask, “What brings you joy as a helper?” The more you stay connected with the joy, rewards, hope and sense of purpose as a helper, the more you decrease your chance of developing compassion fatigue.

In addition to staying aware of your meanings, it’s important to ask, “How do you engage in reflective practice?” Do you practice mindfulness, gratitude and/or journal? The more self-aware and grounded you are in the moment, the more attuned you are to your needs as a helper. Another way to do a check in with yourself is to ask, “In what ways are you kind to yourself?” As a helper, it can be easy to focus on others and dismiss your own needs and wants. Are you treating yourself with the same care, compassion and concern that you would show to others? Are you remembering to take care of your basic needs? All of these questions are important to ask yourself frequently if you are experiencing compassion fatigue.


If you are wondering if you have compassion fatigue, there are a few different assessments you can take, including these two, which I have included:

  1. The Compassion Fatigue Assessment Tool
  2. Compassion Fatigue/Satisfaction Self-Test (CFS)

It is important to note that they are not a diagnostic tool, but rather they are a helpful tool to help you to better understand your mental wellbeing. And if you do have concerns based on these assessments, please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional and get the help that you need and deserve.

Staff Blogger: Jennifer Wendell

Jennifer Wendell is a recent cum laude graduate from University of Delaware with dual degrees in Human Services- Clinical Concentration and Sociology. She is currently the Website and Communications Associate at The Mental Health Association in Delaware. She is passionate about advocacy, social issues and human rights, especially for the LGBTQ+ community and disability community. In her free time, she likes to be creative, go on adventures and explore nature.