Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Self-Care

This week I wanted to shed some light on three important topics, Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Self-Care. Burnout and Compassion Fatigue can impact our lives tremendously if not taken care of.  Self-Care is one way to be preventive and proactive in your mental health well being. Burnout and Compassion Fatigue are not necessarily talked about regularly in any type of environment and not talked about nearly enough is environments where there are higher rates of it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that can lead to:

  • physical and emotional exhaustion
  • cynicism and detachment
  • feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

When someone is experiencing full-fledged burnout, they are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level. I want to make clear though that burnout doesn’t happen suddenly. You don’t wake up one morning and suddenly “have burnout.” Burnout tends to creep up on us over time slowly which makes it much harder to recognize. Despite burnouts slow build up our bodies and minds give us warnings, and if you know what to look for, you can recognize it before it becomes unmanageable.

What are the signs of burnout?

There are three areas that are characterized by certain signs and symptoms with some overlap in some of the areas. These signs and symptoms exist along a continuum and the difference between stress and burnout is just a matter of degree. This means that if you can recognize the signs early, do something to address the symptoms, the better able you will be to avoid burnout.

Signs of physical and emotional exhaustion:

  1. Chronic fatigue. In the early stages, you may feel a lack energy and feel tired most days. In the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted, and you may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.
  2. InsomniaIn the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep one or two nights a week. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal; as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep.
  3. Forgetfulness/impaired concentration and attention. Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.
  4. Physical Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches (all of which should be medically assessed).
  5. Increased illness. Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.
  6. Loss of appetiteIn the early stages, you may not feel hungry and may skip a few meals. In the latter stages, you may lose your appetite all together and begin to lose a significant amount of weight.
  7. Early on, you may experience mild symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. As you move closer to burnout, the anxiety may become so serious that it interferes in your ability to work productively and may cause problems in your personal life.
  8. DepressionIn the early stages, you may feel mildly sad, occasionally hopeless, and you may experience feelings of guilt and worthlessness as a result. At its worst, you may feel trapped, severely depressed, and think the world would be better off without you. (If your depression is to this point, you should seek professional help immediately.)
  9. AngerAt first, this may present as interpersonal tension and irritability. In the latter stages, this may turn into angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace. (If anger gets to the point where it turns to thoughts or acts of violence toward family or coworkers, seek immediate professional assistance.)

Signs of Cynicism and Detachment

  1. Loss of enjoyment.At first, loss of enjoyment may seem very mild, such as not wanting to go to work or being eager to leave. Without intervention, loss of enjoyment may extend to all areas of your life, including the time you spend with family and friends. At work, you may try to avoid projects and figure out ways to escape work all together.
  2. Pessimism.At first, this may present itself as negative self-talk and/or moving from a glass half-full to a glass half-empty attitude. At its worst, this may move beyond how you feel about yourself and extend to trust issues with coworkers and family members and a feeling that you can’t count on anyone.
  3. In the early stages, this may seem like mild resistance to socializing (i.e., not wanting to go out to lunch; closing your door occasionally to keep others out). In the latter stages, you may become angry when someone speaks to you, or you may come in early or leave late to avoid interactions.
  4. Detachment is a general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. It can take the form of the isolative behaviors described above, and result in removing yourself emotionally and physically from your job and other responsibilities. You may call in sick often, stop returning calls and emails, or regularly come in late.

Signs of Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment

  1. Feelings of apathy and hopelessness.This is similar to what is described in the depression and pessimism sections of this article. It presents as a general sense that nothing is going right or nothing matters. As the symptoms worsen, these feelings may become immobilizing, making it seems like “what’s the point?”
  2. Increased irritability.Irritability often stems from feeling ineffective, unimportant, useless, and an increasing sense that you’re not able to do things as efficiently or effectively as you once did. In the early stages, this can interfere in personal and professional relationships. At its worst, it can destroy relationships and careers.
  3. Lack of productivity and poor performance. Despite long hours, chronic stress prevents you from being as productive as you once were, which often results in incomplete projects and an ever-growing to-do list. At times, it seems that as hard as you try, you can’t climb out from under the pile.


Other articles that talk about how a person can take care of themselves when they are experiencing burnout.

What is Compassion Fatigue?

It is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” Dr. Charles Figley.

Recognizing Compassion Fatigue

Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of stress resulting from the care giving work you perform on a regular basis. While the symptoms are often disruptive, depressive, and irritating, an awareness of the symptoms and their negative effect on your life can lead to positive change.

Normal symptoms present in an individual include:

  1. Excessive blaming
  2. Bottled up emotions
  3. Isolation from others
  4. Receives unusual amount of complaints from others
  5. Voices excessive complaints about administrative functions
  6. Substance abuse used to mask feelings
  7. Compulsive behaviors such as overspending, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions
  8. Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene, appearance)
  9. Legal problems, indebtedness
  10. Reoccurrence of nightmares and flashbacks to traumatic event
  11. Chronic physical ailments such as gastrointestinal problems and recurrent colds
  12. Apathy, sad, no longer finds activities pleasurable
  13. Difficulty concentrating
  14. Mentally and physically tired
  15. Preoccupied
  16. In denial about problems

When Compassion Fatigue hits critical mass in the workplace, the organization itself suffers. Chronic absenteeism, spiraling Worker’s Comp costs, high turnover rates, friction between employees, and friction between staff and management are among organizational symptoms that surface, creating additional stress on workers.

Healing an organization takes time, patience, and most important, commitment. An awareness of Compassion Fatigue and its far-reaching effects must be present at the highest level of management and work its way down to encompass line staff, as well as volunteers. Often, the mistrust that employees feel towards management is not unfounded. Since many care giving institutions are non-profit, they inherit additional challenges such as low wages, lack of space, high management turnover rate, and constantly shifting priorities.

Organizational symptoms of Compassion Fatigue include:

  1. High absenteeism
  2. Constant changes in co-worker’s relationships
  3. Inability for teams to work well together
  4. Desire among staff members to break company rules
  5. Outbreaks of aggressive behaviors among staff
  6. Inability of staff to complete assignments and tasks
  7. Inability of staff to respect and meet deadlines
  8. Lack of flexibility among staff members
  9. Negativism towards management
  10. Strong reluctance toward change
  11. Inability of staff to believe improvement is possible
  12. Lack of a vision for the future

More information on compassion fatigue can be found here:

A helpful quiz to help you find out if you might be experiencing compassion fatigue is here:

So, how do you start the process of feeling better if you find that you are experiencing burnout or compassion fatigue? What steps might you take to get on the road to feeling better? Noticing it and identifying it is a step in the direction, telling someone, like your primary care physician, friend, or spiritual mentor might be another way to get your gears turning in a positive direction, or starting to practice self-care is more down your alley as a way to get going on a more positive path.

What is Self-care?

Self-care is care provided “for you, by you.” It’s about identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them. It is taking the time to do some of the activities that nurture you. Self-care is about taking proper care of yourself and treating yourself as kindly as you treat others.


Self Care Begins With You:

  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Enhance your awareness with education.
  • Accept where you are on your path at all times.
  • Understand that those close to you may not be there when you need them most.
  • Exchange information and feelings with people who can validate you.
  • Listen to others who are suffering.
  • Clarify your personal boundaries. What works for you; what doesn’t.
  • Express your needs verbally.
  • Take positive action to change your environment.


Here are some ideas on three types of self-care that you and engage in:


  • go for a walk
  • dance
  • Hike
  • Swim
  • get a hug
  • play with a dog/cat
  • clean and reorganize a room in your home
  • garden/weed
  • take a bath


  • read a book
  • listen to instrumental music
  • learn a new skill
  • draw/color
  • do a DIY project
  • turn your phone off


  • meditate
  • practice yoga
  • light a candle
  • talk with a friend
  • go on a date (with you or someone else)
  • journal
  • write down a list of things you are grateful for
  • Go to therapy

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