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A young woman is experiencing compassion fatigue or burnout and is learning the difference between them.

Compassion Fatigue vs Burnout: What’s the Difference?

6 min.

We delve into the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout and give five tips to get you on the road to healing from either condition.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

November 30, 2023

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Table of Contents

Seeing someone you care about in distress is difficult. Maybe you’ve witnessed your sibling get bullied and harassed at school. Perhaps you’ve lived with an ailing parent or in a household with violence. In any of these instances, it’s normal to have the instinct to offer a loved one care, but without the right boundaries, caring for others can take a toll on your mental health. 

If this sounds familiar, you could be experiencing compassion fatigue — a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion due to exposure to someone else’s trauma, stress, or suffering. Below, we explain the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout, as well as how to protect your mental health and well-being moving forward from either condition.

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Compassion fatigue vs burnout

Compassion fatigue comes from consistently dealing with others’ trauma, while burnout, on the other hand, arises from prolonged, unmanaged stress. Below, we delve into the difference between the two conditions. 

Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue refers to the emotional, physical, and spiritual distress that occurs in people who are exposed to other people’s suffering or trauma. It’s typically observed in people who spend their time helping others, such as social workers and other mental health professionals, but can impact anyone who cares for or spends time with those who are stressed or suffering. 

Also known in clinical research as secondary trauma or vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue has been observed in children or adolescents with a parent who has been abused, experienced intimate partner violence, or has a history of trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can occur from directly witnessing a loved one’s trauma or even from knowing about the trauma. 

It’s worth noting that some medical professionals believe a more appropriate term for compassion fatigue is empathy fatigue. While compassion enables people to understand how others might feel, empathy is when people can actually feel and experience the emotions of others. 

According to Mental Health America, a high level of empathy is good, but too much can be emotionally exhausting. When people spend so much of their emotional strength relating to other people’s concerns, they can forget to take care of themselves.

Burnout

Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion due to chronic stress. While compassion fatigue affects people who have continual exposure to other people’s trauma, burnout stems from the long-term effects of unmanaged stress. Caregiver burnout is common among people who care for others, such as moms and therapists. Burnout can also be a symptom of managing chronic mental health conditions such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

According to World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is characterized by three symptoms:

  • Feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion
  • Reduced professional efficacy
  • Increased mental distance from your job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job

Compassion fatigue vs burnout: the symptoms

Just as compassion fatigue and burnout stem from different sources, they manifest themselves differently. While there is overlap in the symptoms of both conditions, there are some distinct differences. Keep reading to learn the symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout. 

Compassion fatigue symptoms

Burnout symptoms

  • Emotional numbness
  • Hopelessness 
  • Irritability or anger
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Depersonalization (feeling detached from ones’ thoughts or body)
  • Disconnection from others
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Heart problems
  • Anxiety 
  • Stress
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue
  • Hopelessness 
  • Appetite disruptions
  • Oversleeping
  • Hair loss
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor performance
  • Growing detached from loved ones and hobbies

Compassion fatigue symptoms

When people are exposed to heightened levels of trauma and stress, it makes sense that they may eventually become emotionally exhausted. Managing other people’s pains and emotions for too long can even lead to a decreased ability to empathize or show compassion. Other common physical and emotional symptoms of compassion fatigue include: 

  • Emotional numbness
  • Hopelessness 
  • Irritability or anger
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Depersonalization (feeling detached from ones’ thoughts or body)
  • Disconnection from others
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Heart problems

Burnout symptoms

Burnout may look and feel different in each person, but here are some of the most common mental, physical, and behavioral symptoms in teens and young adults.

  • Anxiety 
  • Stress
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fatigue
  • Hopelessness 
  • Appetite disruptions
  • Oversleeping
  • Hair loss
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor performance
  • Growing detached from loved ones and hobbies

5 tips to reduce or prevent compassion fatigue and burnout

If you’re suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue, it’s important to be proactive in addressing your mental health needs. These tips can help mitigate exhaustion and get you on the road to healing and recovery. 

1. Set clear boundaries 

One way to reduce your risk of fatigue and burnout is to create clear boundaries. This may be easier said than done, but taking the time to understand what drains you can help protect your well-being. 

To start, recognize if there are certain people, places, or situations in your life that overwhelm you. If you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, remember that empathy means feeling with someone, not for them. It’s ok to say, “It sounds like you’re in pain, and I really want to be there for you. Right now, I’m also feeling a little overwhelmed so I’m trying to take care of myself too. Can we work together to get you the support you need?”

And with burnout, consider creating clear boundaries about what you’re comfortable with at home, work, or school so that you can better address whatever is contributing to your underlying stress. Boundaries may also involve creating realistic goals, prioritizing what’s most important to you, and saying no to requests that compromise your health.

2. Practice self-care

Self-care means preserving or improving your own health — something that’s even more important when you’re feeling emotionally exhausted. Establishing a good self-care routine involves a healthy and balanced diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise. It also means finding time in the day for things that bring you joy; this can be as simple as listening to music or baking a cake. 

A young man is practicing self-care by reading on his couch to reduce or prevent compassion fatigue and burnout.

3. Share responsibilities

You don’t need to handle responsibilities (including caregiving and job-related tasks) by yourself. Depending on the situation, consider a loved one or co-worker who can take responsibility off your plate and ask them to do so. Rotating the work that you do can reduce stress, give you a break from challenging situations, and stave off compassion fatigue and burnout.

4. Connect with others in a similar situation

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, sometimes you need your own turn to share what’s on your mind. Group therapy is an opportunity to discuss your feelings and needs, listen to others who share similar experiences, and discover new tools to manage your emotions. 

5. Seek professional support

When left unmanaged, compassion fatigue or burnout can have negative consequences for your mental health. If you start to notice signs of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, or overwhelming stress, it may be time to speak with a mental health professional. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is often used to help people better understand their patterns of feelings and behavior so they can challenge what’s no longer serving them. 

How Charlie Health can help with burnout and compassion fatigue

If you notice that caring for others is starting to affect your ability to care for yourself, consider seeking help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is designed to support young people who are experiencing anxiety, trauma, and other complex mental health conditions, including compassion fatigue and burnout. 

Our expert clinicians will create a personalized treatment for you to help you identify your triggers, learn coping mechanisms, and lower your stress level — all from the comfort of your own home. In addition to weekly individual and family therapy, group sessions are a cornerstone of our holistic, intensive program. These group sessions allow people to understand that they’re not alone on the journey toward better mental health and get support from others. 

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