August 15, 2017

Compassion Fatigue’s Harmful Path

In our previous posts, If We Want To vs. If We Can and Self-Stigma: Internalizing Trauma, we considered the many, multilayered connections between trauma and compassion. Now, we’ll discuss compassion fatigue, or the gradual lessening of compassion over time, and how this can be a barrier to our experiences in and out the workplace. What does compassion fatigue look like? Eric Gentry, PhD, researched this question and has described compassion fatigue’s harmful path. WISE added the visuals to make it purr-fect! The first phase, known as zealot or idealist, is when someone is enthusiastic and excited to perform their job duties. Armed with a can-do attitude and a passion for their work, people here want to be involved and devote themselves to the cause, so much so that they may take on more than they can manage. Because this benefits their employer, as well as their clients or patients, they’re often rewarded for this extra effort.     The next phase, known as irritability, is when someone begins to feel cynical due to realizing that they work in imperfect systems which present barriers to doing the best for those they seek to help. They may feel that their job duties aren’t what they expected or that they’re not making a difference despite all of their hard work. They may begin to pull away from their colleagues and day-to-day responsibilities by daydreaming or cutting corners in order to avoid performing certain tasks that make them anxious or uncomfortable.       The next phase, known as withdrawal, is when someone begins experiencing extreme self-doubt and questions their own ability and effectiveness in their role, which leads to decreased job satisfaction and feelings of disappointment, frustration, and guilt. At this point, they likely feel detached from and exhausted by their job duties and are past the point of reaching out to others, including colleagues, family members, or friends, for help.       The last phase, known as zombie, is when someone fails to cope in a way that’s healthy and shuts down. Feelings of disdain, impatience, and rage now drive their behavior, and they are likely dominated by a pervasive sense that something isn’t right. They may question their own reasons for accepting a certain job or entering a certain profession and consider leaving all together.       At this point, there are two options – to leave the position or profession or to practice resiliency and move towards renewal. I think we can agree that the latter option is certainly preferable, because it means that highly qualified individuals remain where they’re sorely needed and have the information or resources needed to support renewal and resiliency. It’s a win-win. Our goal then is to prevent compassion fatigue by ongoing actions that maintain compassion satisfaction, which we’ll explore in-depth in September’s post.     In the meantime, here are three things you can do to further explore this topic now.
  1. Gauge how you’re doing right now. It seems basic, but often, we’re too busy to recognize our own wellbeing. Take a moment to practice self-awareness and acknowledge how your body and mind are doing. What does this look like? Take note of any symptoms you notice, taking your entire self into account. What led to this happening? Take note of any actions or events, bad or good, which made you feel like this. Notice and work to let go of any anger or shame that comes with this exploration.
  2. WISE has found the Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) scale to be a helpful tool in assessing compassion fatigue. It is an easy, single page questionnaire, which measures compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. Find it here.
  3. Check out this video called From Compassion Fatigue to Resilience for more information about this subject, and be sure to check back next month for our latest post, sign up for the WISE newsletter, attend a WISE meeting to get more involved, or visit our website at
Thanks, Lucy, and the WISE team