Burnout, it’ s such an accurate word to describe what so many people are feeling.   Once alive, burning with passion a zest for life; now extinguished, depleted and nothing left to fuel for what life brings you. 

But then.. What is compassion fatigue?  Is it just another name for burnout? Or is it something different?

If you’re a ministry leader that you have likely felt the heavy weight of serving others.  Wethers it’s just s story you’ve heard that sticks with you for a few days or it’s something that has changed your outlook on life.  The impacts of caring for others can be hard to ignore. 

When we re feeling weary it’s easy to feel burnt out.  And there’s no question that when you serve others as an occupation or career you can loose motivation.  

But there is a distinct difference between burnout and compassion fatigue that I think is vitally important for those in ministry.  

 If there was a recipe for burnout it would have three ingredients:
  1.  Hopelessness
  2.  Helplessness
  3.  Prolonged stress

 

Hopelessness or the belief and mindset that things are going to be this way forever. That nothing is going to change. 

When we feel like the deadlines, demands on our time or the needs that we are supporting are never-ending we can begin to lose hope.  

Persistent needs and constant demands quickly begin to feel like you are in a hamster wheel and you are just trying to keep up.  

Helplessness is all about lack of control and the feeling of powerlessness 

Feelings of helplessness grow when we have no control over deadlines, environment, time management, scope of our work.  

Decisions are made for you, rather than with you and you feel helpless, having no control over your circumstances. 

The third and final component of Burnout: Prolonged Stress

Having high levels of prolonged stress is commonly known to be dangerous to the body.  Studies have shown that stress can cause harm to blood pressure, the immune system and even our mental health.  

Enduring high levels of stress for extended periods of time certainly contribute to feelings of burnout.  

 

Let’s bring this to life.  At the time of this recording the world is still in the throws of COVID-19.   We are all at risk of burnout. 


The pandemic seems to be going on and on and at times people could feel hopeless that it is ever going to change.  

Most of us have felt helpless or a loss of control because of the restrictions on gathering and travel.  

And the added stress of lockdowns, school closures and isolation has been keeping tensions high. 
Most of the globe have all the ingredients of burnout.  And it’s true anyone can experience burnout, it’s not unique to a culture, position, or status.  Everyone in any role or position can experience the wear and tear of burnout.  

 

However compassion fatigue is different. 

Compassion fatigue impacts only those who provide support and care to others.  Those who are in helping fields. Like teachers, first responders, health care, counsellors, outreach workers, and clergy. 

Compassion fatigue is the erosion or wearing down of the helpers ability to have hope, empathy and compassion for others AND for themselves.  It’s a result of providing care and support for others without the opportunity to refuel.  

Among the dozen or so factors that differentiate burnout and compassion fatigue the one that I think key to understand is the long term impact of compassion fatigue as compared to burnout.  

 

With burnout if you are able to find relief from the helplessness,  hopelessness and stress you are likely to find symptoms of burnout to subside with no lasting impacts.  But that is not the case with compassion fatigue

  

Compassion fatigue has long term impacts to the world view and wellbeing. 

When you hear a traumatic story , or 500 traumatic stories, each one of these stories has an impact on you and your view of the world.  Over time, your ability to see the world as a safe place is severely impacted.  You may see the world as an unsafe place.   

For example,  a counsellor who works with children who have been abused becomes unable to hire a babysitter for fear that the sitter will abuse their children.  

Or a youth outreach shelter worker becomes obsessed with monitoring their own teenage children, convinced that they were using drugs.

Or an example from my life is that i worked on a community crisis team during a time when there were several teen suicides in my community.  To this day when I hear a train whistle blow i immediately think that someone might be on the tracks.

 

This is inevitable and the reason why compassion fatigue is considered an occupational hazard and not just a situational response.  

A person’s wellbeing can be so deeply impacted that a vacation or relief of stressors does not remove the emotional and physical exhaustion, numbness, cynicism and resentment and as a result feelings of shame and guilt grow.  

it’s important for Clergy and those in ministry caregiving roles to understand the difference because so often when no amount of rest refuels you, you begin to look within and judge yourself guilty of being sinful or a failure. 

And that isn’t true. 

If you are passionate for ministry but are finding yourself weary from supporting people I want you to know that it’s not sin, weakness or failure. You are a deeply caring individual, but your have not had and opportunity to refuel. 

When helpers become overwhelmed with compassion fatigue they can be at risk of moral failure, experience health complications or have to leave the ministry to find rest and rebuild their marriage and health.  

But it doesn’t have to be this way you can find healing from compassion fatigue without having to leave ministry.   And learn strategies to refuel to prevent compassion fatigue in the future.  

As a known work hazard compassion fatigue can be prevented, but I feel it is key to understand that burnout is different than compassion fatigue.  As compassion fatigue has long term psychological impacts and can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.

One of the tools to identify if your experiencing compassion fatigue is self assessment.  If you are wanting to measure your levels of CF go to findinghopeinhelping.or/quiz and compete the 30 question.