Compassion Fatigue for the Masses

Is anyone else tired of the news, feeling deflated or powerless to do anything about the state of world? There’s actually good reason for this – we can only cope with so much ‘trauma’ before our mind and body begin to shut down. It’s a coping strategy of sorts.


What is Compassion Fatigue

Even I’m finding it hard not to feel low at the moment. And I’m usually more like Tigger than Eeyore.

You may have heard about “Compassion Fatigue” (CF). Figley (1995) used this term to specifically describe a form of emotional and physical exhaustion that is largely experienced by therapists, nurses, social workers, counsellors etc., as a result of working directly with patients and their families.

Where a nurse or psychotherapist would normally empathise with their patients, CF causes these helpers to become desensitised to the pain their patients feel, leaving them unable to empathise with them as strongly. It’s considered the negative cost of caring.


It’s Hard to Switch Off

Compassion Fatigue is a Secondary Traumatic Stress disorder: it’s a serious life-threatening state of mind and body. Imagine what an ICU nurse has to deal with during every shift, and possibly even between shifts when they’re at home. (They might continue to think about their patients and their families at random moments while hanging up laundry or brushing their teeth). It can be difficult for the nurse to ‘switch off’ and completely unwind after a shift.



And it can be hard for the rest of us to ‘switch off’ too – the news on TV and radio, the social media feeds, the Covid-conversations with neighbours and friends. I want to acknowledge that we are all dealing with far more exposure to trauma than we’re used to.


Compassion Fatigue is Over-used

But I’ve noticed the term Compassion Fatigue being used in a far broader sense at the moment because of the pandemic, for example in this BBC article: “If the news leaves you numb, you’re not alone”.

In this and similar articles, CF is applied to locked-down students and retirees who have been obsessed with the coronavirus news and stats, and as a result, understandably, they feel saddened and numbed. These same people, like you and I, have also been directly affected by the pandemic either through losing a loved-one or have been made redundant. It’s extremely tough at the moment for most of us.

I can relate to this on a personal level. Several months ago, my empathy went into overdrive and I felt frustrated and powerless (even though I was still actually working in my capacity as a psychologist). I chose to stop tuning into the news multiple times a day, and limited my intake of social media. (See my previous post on being ‘over-sensitive’ if you too are an #empath).


You Can’t Compare Feelings

BUT I can’t compare my emotional state to that of the ICU or A&E nurse. Yes, we are all suffering. But in very different ways.

It upsets me when I see the seriousness of Compassion Fatigue being diluted to an umbrella catch-all term used for people who are not directly working with people who experience trauma. It would be like complaining that I’m starving when I’m simply feeling peckish. Or describing a mild headache as a migraine.

For this reason I don’t think the rest of us can claim that we are experiencing Compassion Fatigue.


However you Feel is Valid

I want to be able to express how I feel without appropriating the trauma these helpers experience.


An Alternative Phrase

So I’m offering an alternative phrase: “Passive Compassion Fatigue” to refer to the experience of people who, like me, the student and the retiree, are not directly working with patients and their families, but do experience sadness, apathy, a low mood and powerlessness: the negative impacts of Covid-19.


Passive Compassion Fatigue

What do you think? Do you think Passive Compassion Fatigue hits the mark or is even necessary? Let me know your thoughts!





Are you naturally compassionate?

Either way, did you know that being more compassionate improves personal wellbeing and business productivity? I specialise in helping people, teams and organisations to benefit from applying "Compassion At Work". Get free and instant access to my workbook. Just sign up below.

Success! Lookout for an email in your inbox or spam folder.