Compassion Fatigue: The Dark Side of Healthcare

compassion fatigue healthcare

Photo credit Matthias Zomer


Healthcare is a rapidly growing industry full of in demand and well paying jobs. Many people go into healthcare not only for the great job opportunities but also for the purpose of helping others. However, there is a downside to constantly having to show compassion and hide negative emotions. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are human. They become overwhelmed by stress or trauma and can experience compassion fatigue and/or burnout.


Definitions – Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

What is compassion fatigue? According to, one definition of compassion fatigue is “The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a “cumulative” level of trauma.” Burnout is defined as “Cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress, NOT trauma-related.”


Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout

Compassion fatigue and burnout are very similar and many of their symptoms overlap. Some common symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout include:

  • emotional, mental and physical exhaustion
  • isolation and depression
  • physical symptoms such as dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, and headaches
  • lack of productivity and poor work performance
  • sleep disturbances
  • anxiety
  • irritability and anger
  • decreased cognitive ability
  • apathy and loss of self-worth

Those suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue may receive a high number of complaints from coworkers, clients or patients. They may also have high absenteeism and display lack of flexibility and cooperation at work.


Prevention and Treatment

What can healthcare workers do to prevent or minimize compassion fatigue and burnout? According to and, some ways to recover include setting personal and professional boundaries, engaging in outside hobbies, eating a healthy diet, keeping a regular sleep schedule, exercising, developing a healthy support system and seeking therapy. Work-life balance and positive coping strategies are key components to preventing compassion fatigue or burnout. Make time for hobbies, sleep, and self-care. Develop positive coping methods such as journaling, meditation, and exercise.  It’s also important to recognize when it’s time to leave your job.



Compassion Fatigue