Compassion Fatigue: Signs, symptoms and strategies

In recent years, we’ve faced challenging times globally, prompting many to feel a strong urge to help others. However, prolonged exposure to others’ suffering can lead to compassion fatigue, especially for caretakers, health care workers, social services workers and volunteers.

Feeling compassion towards those around us has been identified as an evolutionary development of the human species. Compassion enables us to recognise the suffering of others and experience the motivation to assist. But what happens when the experience of caring for others and the desire to help them comes at the detriment of our own wellbeing?

What is compassion fatigue?

The term compassion fatigue was first outlined in 1980, and it is a well-established concept in psychological literature. It involves the development of negative psychological symptoms and secondary stress that results from caring for others.

Distinguishing itself from burnout, compassion fatigue has two primary facets:

  1. The impact of caregiving demands, such as fatigue, anger, depletion or depressive symptomology.
  2. The secondary traumatic stress arising from indirect or direct exposure to the trauma or stress of those being cared for.

Signs and symptoms

Compassion fatigue becomes evident when our ‘cup’ of caring for others is completely dried up. The subsequent response typically includes a reduced capacity to sustain the demands of caring, and may lead us to run for cover by avoiding, withdrawing or turning to unhelpful coping strategies.

Symptoms and experiences can vary between individuals and over time. Below are some typical symptoms of compassion fatigue:

  • Mood swings (including heightened emotionality or outbursts of tears or anger)
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Inability to sustain previous duties such as work or care
  • Reduced interest or capacity to engage with others
  • Difficulty sustaining attention
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A sense of hopelessness or feeling defeated
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches
  • A sense of demoralisation
  • Engaging in addictive behaviours to numb or distract from stress or discomfort


Recovery from compassion fatigue often involves taking a break from caregiving demands. Giving ourselves the time to return our attention and focus back to ourselves is generally an important part of restoring our wellbeing and refilling our ‘cups’.

It may be beneficial to seek support from healthcare professionals. If your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program, connecting with these services may be especially beneficial. These supports may be able to offer you a space to debrief, process emotions and reduce the impact of the burden of caring for others.

Mental health professionals may also assist with evidence based therapeutic interventions to improve cognitions, increase emotional regulation, develop coping strategies and implement self-care or relaxation practices.


Here are some key practices to support ourselves in times of caring for others:

Taking breaks: Whether providing care to loved ones, at work or in other settings, taking breaks is a good way to step back and switch our focus. This might involve some time to return your attention to yourself, your breath, another person or to nature. The emphasis is on stepping out of the caring or compassion focused mode.

Celebrating the positives: Taking time to celebrate the small progressions of those we are caring for, or the positive impact we are having, is an important way to sustain meaning and recognition.

Monitoring how much attention or investment you place into the support you are giving to another: If we put all our energy, hope or capacity into the care of one person, role or place, we leave ourselves very vulnerable to the outcomes. Ensuring we set some boundaries and hold some reserves for ourselves and others is integral to protecting our own wellbeing.

Seeking support, supervision and treatment: Having time to debrief and unload is an effective way to reduce the heaviness that can result from providing care and support. Whether connecting with friends, family, colleagues, supervisors or mental health professionals, the impact of sharing, reframing and validating our experience can be an effective way to clear emotional and psychological baggage. Furthermore, improved coping strategies, cognitions and emotional regulation may be developed.

Balancing life: Ensuring we live balanced lives that provide us with opportunities to switch out of a carer role can help to counter the demands of caring. This may include switching off devices, spending time in nature, exercising, having fun, engaging in play or other activities which create a break and provide an opportunity to restore.

Self-care practices: Ensuring we take care of ourselves is integral to our capacity to provide care to others. While self-care looks different for everyone, being gentle with ourselves, engaging in activities of value and meaning, exercise, relaxation, getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet, provide a good foundation for self-care.


Compassion fatigue affects those who care for others, leading to negative psychological, physiological and/or emotional states. Symptoms include headaches, fatigue, and low mood. Recovery involves taking breaks, seeking support, and adopting self-care practices. Understanding the importance of filling one’s own ‘cup’ before caring for others is key to sustaining compassion and well-being.


The information provided in this document is general in nature and is intended to be used for information purposes only. While we have tried to ensure the accuracy of the information published, no guarantee can be given that the information is free from error or omission or that it is accurate, current or complete.

The information published is not, and should not be relied on as, health or treatment advice. The diagnosis and treatment of any mental illness requires the attention of a physician or other properly qualified mental health professional. If you are seeking diagnosis or treatment of any other mental illness, you should consult a physician or mental health professional. You should not delay in seeking, or disregard, professional health advice because of something you have read in this document.