What is compassion fatigue - and how can we tackle it?

Every week I have the British Medical Journal drop through the letter box. I usually try to flick through and see what jumps out at me. This week there was a piece on ‘compassion fatigue.’

Thursday, 8th July 2021, 6:00 am
Nursing care. Getty Images
Nursing care. Getty Images

You may not be surprised to hear that many in the caring professions are vulnerable to this. I’m sure we all sense it at times. In jobs where people are constantly exposed to the suffering of others, it is common to build up a ‘thick skin’ , where you become less empathetic and often guilty as a result. It can result in irritability frustration and fatigue.

Evidence suggests those who are most caring are the highest at risk.

It set me reflecting on the general increase in distress that many of us have been exposed to across the pandemic. Whether it is bereavement, illness, financial ruin, or isolation, there’s no doubt collectively we’ve been exposed to much more distress lately.

The counterbalances to compassion fatigue are taking breaks, getting a change of scenery, and mixing and laughing with friends. Ironically of course these are the very antidotes we’ve all been deprived as part of the precautions. Working from home can make it so much harder to put boundaries between work and home time. This too is a recommended way to counter compassion fatigue.

The BMJ article highlights that one of the key things is to be aware of it and recognise the signs. So whilst our medical journals are highlighting it to us, I thought it a good idea to highlight it generally. My impression as a GP is that there is a lot of compassion fatigue out there in all of us. There is a growing pressure to get back to normal, and I sense a low-level general intolerance and irritation.

So what to do? Well all those ‘look after yourself tips’ from last week definitely help. But perhaps critical for recharging your compassion is the mental break. Even if it is hard to physically get away, it is really important to plan in something that changes your scene for at least a few days. Maybe you don’t have to go far, maybe mixing with different people, or trying something new. Something interesting or exciting takes your mind away from the routine and allows your compassion to recharge.

I think it helps as well if we are aware that we’re probably all going through this to some degree, and cut each other some slack.