Compassion Fatigue Common During COVID-19

Even in normal times, healthcare providers face considerable stress brought on by any number of factors. Long shifts or night shifts. Managing multiple patients and competing responsibilities. Listening to patients and family complaints or challenging experiences.

This “perfect storm” of factors—and of course the considerable, ongoing stress related to COVID-19—may mean you are suffering from compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is more than normal stress. It includes:

  • Burnout: Mental and physical exhaustion that leads to a reduced ability to cope. Burnout involves fatigue, irritability, a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, and reduced satisfaction in your work.
  • Secondary Traumatic Stress: What you may experience when you practice empathy with patients or when listening to others talk about their traumas.

Compassion Fatigue Self-Assessment

Have you noticed any of the following signs and symptoms? If so, you may be suffering from compassion fatigue and should take steps to care for your physical and emotional health.

  1. Difficulty making decisions
  2. Difficulty sleeping
  3. Exhaustion
  4. Feeling angry or irritable
  5. Feeling disconnected from co-workers
  6. Feeling overwhelmed
  7. Impaired ability to care for patients
  8. Increased startle response
  9. Reduced job satisfaction
  10. Reduced ability to feel empathy for patients

Caring for the Caregiver

Do you have recognize signs of compassion fatigue in yourself? If so, it is important to acknowledge it, then begin practicing better self-care, getting professional help, or both.

Even though many of the suggestions below may be familiar to you—perhaps because it’s good advice you give to patients—it can sometimes be easy to forget you also need to practice them.

  • Rethink “exercise.” Walking has been described as “the perfect exercise.” But after a long day at work, you may not feel like “exercise” at all. If this is true for you, why not think of it in a new way: grab some headphones, queue up your favorite music or audiobook and consider it a way to relax or unwind versus “exercise.”
  • Make sleep a priority. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. If you have a hard time getting this much, take a close look at things you can adjust. For instance, if noise keeps you awake, try a white noise phone app. Or, if a light bothers you, find a way to cover your windows. If your smartphone keeps you up, don’t keep it within arm’s reach of your bed.
  • Eat fresh fruits and vegetables. Do your best to eat healthy foods—just like you advise your patients to do. Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated with non-sugary, caffeine-free beverages, too.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. These substances can provide a temporary stress relief. But as a healthcare provider, you’re already aware that it is easy to become dependent on them. Find healthier ways to relax, such as a warm bath.
  • Try meditation, guided visualization or deep breathing. Meditating and practicing guided visualization have been shown to offer many benefits, including reducing anxiety, depression and even blood pressure. Just go to your smartphone app store to review many apps available.
  • Humor. Laughing can help relieve stress. Why not watch a favorite comedy show or movie from your past the next time you have a chance? Give yourself permission to enjoy some light-hearted humor.
  • Consider journal writing or drawing. Many people finding writing or drawing in a journal can be an effective way to express their feelings and manage stress.
  • Spiritual and religious practices. Many organizations now offer online, live-streamed services and observances. Depending on your own belief system, this can be a good opportunity to reflect and recharge your batteries.
  • When to Seek Professional Help. Self-care can go a long way in combating compassion fatigue. But sometimes it isn’t enough. And, we all know medical providers can be the last people to seek help for medical or mental health concerns, but you deserve the same level of care that you provide to others. Take time to see a physician, mental health counselor, or other qualified professional to address your own mental health needs.


Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs/National Center for PTSD

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration