Home Audiology Compassion Fatigue: The Cost of Caring

Compassion Fatigue: The Cost of Caring

by Kathryn Samples Williams
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A young woman is looking outside through the window and thinking something deeply alone.

As audiologists and speech-language pathologists, we truly care about our students, clients and patients. Helping change people’s lives is a primary reason why many pursue a career in communication sciences and disorders. But at what cost? Is there such a thing as caring too much? Yes, it’s possible, and it’s known as compassion fatigue.

A consequence of possessing a strong sense of empathy, combined with repeated or prolonged interaction with people who have experienced trauma, compassion fatigue can have negative physical, emotional and cognitive effects. Those of us in helping professions are at risk for developing compassion fatigue. If we notice the signs early, however, we can take steps to ensure our ability to maintain a healthy amount of compassion throughout our careers.

Look for one or all of the following warning signs of compassion fatigue:

  1. Physical: loss of endurance, strength or energy, as well as an increase in accident-proneness and/or physical complaints.
  2. Emotional: reduced enthusiasm, increased irritability, and emotionally overwhelmed, possibly leading to shutting down or the desire to quit.
  3. Social: inability to share in suffering, indifference, inability to be supportive to family and friends.
  4. Spiritual: poor judgment and/or disinterest in examining one’s own thoughts or feelings.
  5. Intellectual: boredom or impaired ability to concentrate.

Noticing and acting on multiple, prolonged signs of compassion fatigue in yourself or your colleagues lessens the chance that symptoms will build and create a negative snowball effect.

The following tips can reduce or prevent symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  1. Empower yourself and others. Educate yourself and co-workers on the risk factors of compassion fatigue. Awareness is the first step toward change.
  2. Take care of yourself physically and mentally. Include physical exercise, try a meditation practice (there are several apps with short, guided meditations), get out in nature, and discuss how you’re feeling with a friend or professional.
  3. Try team-based interventions. Following the guidelines of interprofessional practice, reach out to other professionals working with your clients, and collaborate with them to treat cases when appropriate.
  4. Set up environmental safeguards. Promote and advocate for a healthy supportive work environment. Talk to a supervisor about taking such measures as staff inclusion in bereavement intervention, in-service sessions on self-care and handling compassion fatigue, and facilitation of peer-support networks.

Compassion fatigue exists, but knowing about the signs can go a long way toward prevention. If you identify compassion fatigue symptoms in yourself, it doesn’t mean you don’t care—but rather you care so much you haven’t been able to care for yourself.

Use the tips mindfully to ensure your students, clients and patients get the best of you rather than what’s left of you.

Do you have tips for preventing or reducing compassion fatigue? Please share in the comment section below. 

Kathryn Williams, MS, CCC-SLP, is the owner of Santa Rosa Speech & Language Services, a private practice in Santa Rosa, California. She is also a certified compassion fatigue professional though the International Association of Trauma Professionals. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram @santarosaspeechtherapy, and on her website www.santarosaspeechtherapy.com. Katiespeech@gmail.com  

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Full Spectrum Mama February 20, 2019 - 7:19 pm

What if you are a parent?!

Kathryn Williams February 21, 2019 - 3:43 pm

Thank you for a great question. While this article is geared more toward occupational-induced compassion fatigue, parents are a part of the team and can absolutely be at risk for developing compassion fatigue too. Some of the strategies listed above are applicable to parents as well, such as the taking care of yourself section; however, research has also investigated specific compassion fatigue strategies for caregivers (i.e., parents and spouses) with promising outcomes. If you are interested in the types of strategies I recommend for parents, please email me and I’d be happy to provide you with the information!

Laura February 21, 2019 - 5:55 pm

Wish that I’d been able to put a succinct label on it before this very syndrome drove me to seek another area of healthcare in which to spend my ‘encore’ years. While the new ‘systems-focused’ gig is interesting, I have to really dig for places in which my sharpened empathy and “people” skills are seen as valuable.

Kathryn Williams February 22, 2019 - 1:40 pm

I appreciate your honest reflection about your career change. I believe this happens far more than we may truly know. Personally, I struggled with comprehending the significant impact compassion fatigue had on me for a long time.

Research suggests the negative effects of compassion fatigue can extend to impact the quality of patient care and the healthcare operational system. I believe we, as the helping professional, need to understand the effects within ourselves and advocate to authentically see change at the systems level. Thank you for keeping the conversation going on compassion fatigue!

Jane SLP February 26, 2019 - 4:41 pm

How can one tell if it is compassion fatigue versus depression- many of the same characteristics/symptoms.

Gabrielle Gardner February 26, 2019 - 6:47 pm

This is a valuable article; my gratitude to you for gracefully summarizing what can lead to burnout. I am taking a mental health day tomorrow to address my compassion fatigue. One cannot draw from an empty well.

Hexa March 3, 2019 - 10:42 pm

Today, it is easier than ever to connect with people who totally understand what you and your loved one are going through. In-person and online support groups can help you hear what fellow family caregivers and patients are experiencing, finding out first hand what resources are the most helpful and what’s not. Support groups can be wonderful environments to share your experiences and feelings without fear of being judged.

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