Although they may seem strikingly similar, there are subtle but real differences between such things as “burnout”, “compassion fatigue” and “vicarious trauma”
Whatever label it has, burnout or compassion fatigue remains a serious threat to those working in any mental health capacity. A professional’s psycho-social factors (ie, their personal support system), caseload, experience and age all contribute to whether or not an individual may develop compassion fatigue.
According to David Turgoose and Lucy Maddox, researchers from University College London, who published research earlier this year in the journal “Traumatology”: “Professionals who work in mental health settings are at risk for developing psychological distress themselves.” Turgoose and Maddox continue: “The term ‘compassion fatigue’ has been used to describe the negative effects of working in a psychologically distressing environment on a person’s ability to feel compassion for others.”
According to the authors, professionals who work with traumatized individuals are not the only ones who may be prone to compassion fatigue. The following professions are cited in the research where compassion fatigue may occur:
So, those who work in these fields may be especially prone to burnout. “Constant throughout the literature,” the authors note, “is the notion that compassion fatigue can make it harder for professionals to carry out their roles with empathy and compassion.”
Compassion fatigue has an opposite: “Compassion satisfaction.” Like the phrase implies, compassion satisfaction is when professionals “describe the positive aspects of working in helping professions.” According to Turgoose and Maddox, “Compassion satisfaction is defined as the pleasure derived from helping, affection for colleagues, and a good feeling resulting from the ability to help and make a contribution.” That said, however, while compassion satisfaction is an overall good thing, compassion fatigue clearly has a negative impact on the quality and effectiveness of one’s professional work as well as personal quality of life.
Turgoose and Lucy Maddox outline several variables that may contribute to compassion fatigue in detail. The authors note that caseload, one’s level of empathy, experience, age, mindfulness, compassion satisfaction, religion, coping style, and sex differences may all contribute to how and if a mental health professional experiences compassion fatigue. One may be aware of these variables when considering if he or she has compassion fatigue.
Interestingly, the authors point out that mindfulness may “play a potentially proactive role against compassion fatigue.” The authors note: “The relationship between mindfulness and compassion fatigue could have implications for the way in which clinicians manage the stresses of their work.” Although more research is needed, mindfulness may, as the research suggests, be a protective factor against compassion fatigue.
What remains important is that mental health professionals remain vigilant against compassion fatigue, as it may have negative consequences for their work. Indeed, many mental health professionals are held to the standard that ‘if you can’t do any good, do not do any harm.’ Moreover, as more research is conducted, perhaps more information will produce better and more specific interventions about how mental health professionals can cope, reduce, or eliminate compassion fatigue.
Turgoose, D., and Maddox, L. (2017). Predictors of compassion fatigue in mental health professionals: A narrative review. Traumatology, 32(2), 172 – 185.