Being a carer, whether it be for a family member or in a professional capacity, can be incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. You’re making a truly positive difference to someone else’s life, and in doing so will likely feel a good deal of satisfaction in what you’re doing.

Having said that, though, you’re probably aware that on the other side of the coin it can be very trying at times, too. From long hours to the physical and psychological demands of the job, you may find yourself sometimes feeling a bit flat.

Because at the end of the day, for that reason, it’s important to not only look after the person or people in your care, but yourself as well. If you don’t, you may begin to experience what’s known as compassion fatigue.

What exactly is compassion fatigue?

When someone in a position that involves caring for one or more others begins to feel an extreme burden – physically, emotionally, or both – due to their role as a carer, this is what’s known as compassion fatigue.

Aptly put by Senior Psychologist Suzanne Osbourne from Acacia Employee Assistance Program, compassion fatigue is “… what occurs when you give and give of yourself until your cup is no longer full and you’re left numb”.

It may be more prevalent when the carer is a family member due to the stronger emotional connection that exists. However, it is also a common occurrence for nurses – particularly those providing intensive care for clients who are especially unwell, such as in the cancer ward.

Compassion fatigue is frequently experienced when your family member or client is deteriorating and no matter what you do, you’re unable to prevent their suffering and further deterioration.

Thankfully, there are several signs and symptoms that you can look out for in yourself and other carers that may show you’re experiencing compassion fatigue.

How can I tell if I’m experiencing compassion fatigue?

Although some may compare compassion fatigue to job burnout, they’re quite different from one another.

Where burnout will usually happen over time, for example, the onset of compassion fatigue can sometimes be very sudden and seemingly come from nowhere.

Indeed, there are a number of different signs that may point towards compassion fatigue, so if you recognise any of them you can take appropriate actions early to properly manage it.

Psychological symptoms

The psychological symptoms that you may experience because of compassion fatigue include:

  • A lack of empathy
  • Irritability and anger, limited tolerance for stress
  • Apathy and sadness, no longer finding joy
  • Questioning the meaning and purpose of life
  • Depression and mood swings
  • Anxiety, unrelenting thoughts and concerns
  • Difficulty concentrating and functioning
  • Feelings of isolation from colleagues or friends
  • Nightmares or flashbacks to traumatic events
  • Increased pessimism
  • Poor self-esteem

Physical symptoms

Symptoms of compassion fatigue can also present physically, and manifest as:

  • Exhaustion, including constant feelings of tiredness
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Chronic pain
  • Headaches
  • Poor coping including self-medicating and increased substance use
  • Decreased efficiency when completing tasks
  • Reduced motivation to maintain own hygiene and appearance

How do I prevent compassion fatigue?

There are a number of things you can do to help prevent compassion fatigue. First and foremost, it’s vital that if you do begin to feel run down that you spend some time on rejuvenating yourself. At the end of the day, you’re likely going to be much more effective as a carer when you’re rested and feeling good.

David, a carer who mostly works with dementia clients who have challenging behaviours, advises, “You’ve got to recharge your batteries. When you’re gardening, you’ve got to fertilise, mulch and water plants. You’ve basically got to do that for yourself, too. Eat, drink, rest and chill out.”

Another way is by looking after your body. It can’t be stressed enough just how important a proper diet, daily exercise and a good sleeping schedule all are for overall wellbeing – including the prevention of compassion fatigue. You may not be able to spend hours preparing dinner or hitting the gym, but a little can go quite a long way. Make healthy changes wherever you can, whenever you can, and you’ll start to feel the difference.

It’s also beneficial to create a self-care plan. This will involve developing a schedule that includes planning time for physical, social and inner care practices that will help to keep you rested, recharged and ready for your carer’s role.

Palliative care nurse Rachel says, “I think putting pen to paper has a commitment behind it. It’s about not forgetting – that’s what self-care is about. It’s about prioritising yourself in the picture. It’s not just about giving and doing – it’s about you as well.”

Taking care of yourself is just as important as those you care for if you wish to avoid compassion fatigue, so be sure to spend quality time on yourself, your hobbies and your health.

Find out more about compassion fatigue

If you are interested in learning more about compassion fatigue, we have developed a guide called Caring For The Carer. This guide provides much more in-depth information about compassion fatigue and ways you can help better manage its symptoms once it has already set in.