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What Is Compassion Fatigue in Social Work?

September 25, 2020

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.

What is compassion fatigue? The term is used to describe the physical, emotional and psychological toll caring for others can take on caregivers, which can lead to a diminished capacity to provide care. Compassion fatigue and burnout 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

Compassion fatigue, sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress, 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 struggling to make progress, they become vulnerable to emotional stress.

Why Does Compassion Fatigue Happen?

Compassion fatigue occurs because people have a limited capacity for dealing with stress. The heavy caseloads, long hours and tragic events that many clients experience are all stressors that put social workers at risk for compassion fatigue.

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 may be hard for them to identify when they are beginning to suffer from compassion fatigue. Some social workers may feel a gradual buildup of compassion fatigue, whereas others may experience a sudden onset of its effects. Identifying the signs of compassion fatigue as early as possible is vital to countering its effects.

Compassion Fatigue vs. Compassion Satisfaction

Compassion satisfaction is a person’s positive assessment of their ability to practice empathy at work. It involves a person’s attitude toward their job, an attitude that can be expressed with reflections like “I felt that I was able to empathetically support my clients this week” or “I generally feel present and capable when I work with my clients.”

Social workers who report low compassion satisfaction at work often suffer from compassion fatigue.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

Not all social workers recognize what compassion fatigue is when they experience it. 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. Tiredness 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 their clients, as well as their friends and loved ones. Social workers who get to this point 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 prevent the emotional and physical burden of its effects.

What Should I Do if I Have Compassion Fatigue?

Simply understanding what compassion fatigue is can be helpful, but it’s also important to know how to address it. 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.

Tips for Preventing and Treating Compassion Fatigue in Social Work

The following are some tips for social workers to prevent and treat compassion fatigue:

  • Reduce stress. Social workers who deliver 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 services themselves. However, it can be beneficial for social workers to talk with a professional or meet with a support group, especially if they’re struggling with secondhand shock or trauma. Developing healthy habits — such as eating a balanced diet, practicing meditation and exercising regularly — can help social workers reduce stress and maintain their overall well-being.

Learn More About Careers in Social Work

Social workers who understand what compassion fatigue is and how to address it can prevent burnout before it occurs. By taking time to implement a self-care routine that includes adequate stress relief, rest and relaxation, social workers can continue to support others while coping with the inherent challenges of the job.

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. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of social workers will grow 12% between 2020 and 2030.

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.