Is it Burnout or Compassion Fatigue? Recovering from the Hard Work
March 07, 2023

By Jennifer Shapiro, Associate Director

If you’ve noticed that you feel tired a lot and unmotivated to work—and maybe you also have headaches, irritability, forgetfulness, or are slipping into the state of “quiet quitting,”—compassion fatigue could be the cause. 

Who doesn’t feel this way every day when managing a household, especially when children are involved, and especially throughout the pandemic? However, you may want to pause and ask yourself, could these symptoms be indicative of a larger, more pervasive issue? Before you assume that you couldn’t be suffering from compassion fatigue because you don’t work directly with clients, let’s take a few minutes to consider why, even in the consulting world, this may be happening to you. 

Let’s first look at the definitions of burnout and compassion fatigue.

  • Burnout: We have all likely experienced this at some point in our careers. This term refers to general exhaustion and lack of interest regarding your work. 
  • Compassion Fatigue: Interestingly, this consists of both burnout and secondary traumatic stress. It’s the negative emotions we may feel from helping others who are experiencing extreme stress or trauma. That’s right, helping others, and this could be at work or at home. 

So how could this possibly relate to you? Let’s look at a few potential scenarios:

  • Supporting colleagues through traumatic experiences: Throughout the first couple of years of the pandemic, so many of us were experiencing our own trauma and secondary trauma as we watched the world change. We likely stepped up to support our colleagues, holding space or picking up additional workloads. This type of support takes a toll over time. 
  • Caring for family members with chronic pervasive conditions: Many of us are the primary caregivers of family members with chronic conditions (e.g., diseases, mental health disorders, cognitive limitations) that require constant crisis mitigation and emotional or financial support. This leaves little time for self-care and can lead to exhaustion. 
  • Working on projects that may trigger our personal trauma or result in secondary trauma: Hearing stories from survivors over and over again to transform lived experience into realistic case studies for the field is an example of a scenario that can bring on compassion fatigue. 

If you think that you are experiencing compassion fatigue, don’t worry. You aren’t alone, and there are a lot of resources to help you recover. That is one benefit to the pandemic: we now know a lot more about compassion fatigue, including the toll it takes on leaders. Here are a few resources, including ones that MSG developed last year for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

You matter, so remember to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others!