Confusing Burnout With Compassion Fatigue Has Its Dangers

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its definition of “burnout,” calling it “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Further in their definition, WHO states “burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

This extra notation is helpful, considering that the public has been known to confuse burnout with compassion fatigue, a condition with similar symptoms that exists under far different circumstances. Miscategorizing or mislabeling these afflictions can lead to their effects being amplified and further reduced health within the individuals they are impacting.

According to a report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, compassion fatigue is “stress resulting from exposure to a traumatized individual … a state of physical and mental exhaustion caused by a depleted ability to cope with one’s everyday environment.” This could be a driver becoming stressed or exhausted after empathizing with an impoverished person asking for spare change, or a person’s emotional and mental exhaustion when assisting their traumatized friend who has recently lost their home in a fire.

Compassion fatigue can be especially prevalent among health practitioners, nurses, and first responders. Examples of compassion fatigue in a medical setting could include a physician becoming emotionally exhausted after witnessing a family grieve after their loved one has passed away, or an EMT becoming emotionally exhausted after having witnessed multiple instances of relatives of a heart attack victim break down in tears. “This can impact standards of patient care, relationships with colleagues, or lead to more serious mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or depression,” according to a report in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

As the WHO definition specifically notes, burnout is limited to workplace environments and is something that has not been adequately managed or addressed. It results in emotional exhaustion, cynicism and disengagement. To address burnout employers need to address the underlying workplace issues including workload, incivility and lack of adequate resources.

It’s easy to see how burnout and compassion fatigue can become confused. They both are brought on by some level of stress, often accompanied with some sort of emotional fatigue. They both can involve trauma: compassion fatigue is based on second-hand examination or witness of a traumatized person or traumatic event, while burnout focuses on the stress or trauma an employee themselves is experiencing.

But there are dangers that come with mislabeling these afflictions with one another. Within a workplace, if managers or employees mistakenly believe an employee is experiencing compassion fatigue rather than burnout, they may not attempt to address or find solutions to help the employee cope and move past the issue. Conversely, saying that a person is suffering from burnout when they are really experiencing compassion fatigue can allow the symptoms of compassion fatigue to continue.

Properly acknowledging the differences between compassion fatigue and burnout will ultimately allow us to better help individuals suffering from these conditions. For managers and leaders within a company, they can benefit their employees by making resources available to help employees that become afflicted by burnout, such as time off to address mental health concerns or reducing heavy workloads. Because the dynamics of a particular work environment are often only known by the people within that organization, those managers and leaders are the most-suited to finding solutions to these issues.

Recognizing and addressing compassion fatigue involves that own person taking time to find balance and maintain energy as to not become depleted by another person’s trauma. Regardless of the level of intimacy a person experiencing compassion fatigue has with the individual who the traumatized person, it is important they are still cognizant of their mental and emotional state and address their own needs.


(Diane Andrews, PhD, is the Director of the Nursing Leadership & Management MSN Program at the University of Central Florida.) 

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