What Is Compassion Fatigue in Social Work?

A social worker discusses challenges with a client while sitting at a table.

On a daily basis, social workers help people face difficulties and cope with traumatic experiences. While they aim to help others manage and overcome mental, behavioral and emotional issues, they may become susceptible to stressors and impaired by secondhand shock, which can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout. These problems can deeply affect social workers personally and professionally, but compassion fatigue in social work is preventable and treatable if it is addressed early enough.

Compassion Fatigue Defined

What is compassion fatigue in social work? Compassion fatigue is stress that occurs as a result of helping those who have experienced trauma or are coping with emotional duress. Often, social workers experience emotional and physical exhaustion from exhibiting empathy and concern for patients suffering from pain or trauma. Social workers generally have a genuine desire to help clients cope with critical situations, so when they witness clients struggle to make progress, they become vulnerable to emotional stress.

A body of scholarship indicates that social workers are more prone to secondary traumatic stress in their everyday lives, compared with other professionals. Working with traumatized clients who need counseling, financial assistance, medical resources or housing can often place a huge feeling of responsibility on social workers. They feel as though they have to do everything in their ability to advocate for their clients. Since social workers are trained to exhibit empathy and compassion in their jobs, it can be hard for them to identify when they are beginning to suffer from compassion fatigue. These professionals usually do not feel a gradual buildup of compassion fatigue; instead, they experience a sudden onset of its effects.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

While social workers and other professionals who work one on one with patients and clients can face different levels of compassion fatigue, there are several common symptoms. One of the primary early symptoms of compassion fatigue is feelings of irritability or self-contempt if clients are unresponsive in counseling sessions or seem to be getting worse. Fatigue and difficulty sleeping can also be early signs of compassion fatigue.

If their compassion fatigue becomes severe, social workers may also feel the onset of depression. As a result, they may distance themselves from clients, as well as friends and loved ones. Social workers who get to this point in compassion fatigue can begin to lose job satisfaction and develop feelings of burnout. In addition, some symptoms of compassion fatigue in social work can present physically, resulting in appetite loss, weight loss or headaches, for example.

If social workers can identify their symptoms of compassion fatigue, they can begin treating it and save themselves from the emotional and physical burden of its effects.

Tips for Preventing and Treating Compassion Fatigue in Social Work

Social workers can cultivate a community among their peers or partner with a friend or mentor to establish accountability and prevent compassion fatigue in their jobs. If they aren’t able to prevent compassion fatigue, they can take measures for treatment once they begin seeing signs of it. Here are some tips for preventing and treating compassion fatigue in social work:

Reduce Stress

Social workers who provide counseling services for multiple patients and clients at the same time have to balance dealing with many issues and traumatic situations, which can be stressful. They can reduce stress by taking on fewer clients at a time or connecting their clients with additional resources so they aren’t the only professionals working with them.

Prioritize Breaks and Sleep

Social workers can often get caught up in their work, devoting themselves day and night to their clients. If social workers are feeling overwhelmed, they should take time to step away from their work to rest and recharge. Taking breaks — whether for a few hours or a few days — can help social workers avoid compassion fatigue and eventual burnout.

Seek an Outlet and Cultivate Healthy Habits

Since social workers are responsible for providing counseling or therapy to clients, they may feel they don’t need these same services. However, it can be beneficial for social workers to talk with a professional or meet with support groups, especially if they are struggling with secondhand shock or trauma. Developing healthy habits, such as eating a balanced diet, practicing meditation or exercising regularly can also help social workers reduce stress and preserve their overall wellbeing.

Learn More About Careers in Social Work

While social work can come with stressors, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Social workers engage children, adults and families on a daily basis, helping them overcome difficult situations and live fuller lives. As a result, they play an important and irreplaceable role in society. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the employment of these professionals to grow 11% between now and 2028.

Individuals interested in becoming social workers can earn an advanced degree to develop skills essential for success in the field. Learn more about pursuing an Online Master of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University.