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Compassion fatigue explains why coworkers everywhere are so cranky. Here’s how to fix it

Colleagues arguing in an office
Being quick to anger with colleagues or bosses without concern for ramifications is a sign of compassion fatigue.
Johner Images—Getty Images

Say a server can confidently carry 10 cups without dropping the tray. But they usually have to carry more like 14 cups. Eventually the tray starts to get a bit wobbly. Ultimately, the whole thing comes crashing down, and now they not only have a huge mess on their hands, but they don’t have any cups left. 

This is a portrait of compassion fatigue—a phenomenon infiltrating workplaces, causing employee irritability and burnout, and dividing once cohesive teams that are supposed to thrive together. Not only are people filling others’ cups before their own, they’re also carrying way too much at their own expense. Finally, they break and aren’t able to help anyone because they are picking up the pieces instead.

Enter the pandemic, and its spotlight on mental health and self-care. We started to learn that if we didn’t take care of our own emotional well-being through rest, proper nutrition, sleep, vacation, connection with loved ones, exercise, and other necessities, we surely wouldn’t be emotionally available to fill others’ cups.

Widespread layoffs and economic uncertainty may also contribute to compassion fatigue and poor morale. In addition to impacting employees, compassion fatigue can bleed over into negative customer experiences, dissolve formerly functioning teams, and cause strained relationships with leadership. 

Here are the signs of compassion fatigue at work, and steps to resolve it.

What is compassion fatigue?

In the age of “quiet quitting,” compassion fatigue is its precursor. It’s often defined as a lack of emotional bandwidth to care for everybody you “need” to—colleagues, customers, clients, bosses, and sometimes even those in your personal life. This comes from an initial overwhelm, and sometimes burnout, as too much is required without the ability to fully recharge to prepare to give again.

In the pandemic, teachers and health care workers most notably experienced burnout, the sister issue to compassion fatigue. In one Canadian study, 80% of educators surveyed were burned out as a result of emotional labor and caring for everyone else within broken systems, often at their own expense. 

Similarly, increases in outbursts, rude comments, and aggression are spiking, with a new study citing that 76% of people experience incivility at least monthly.

People who have compassion fatigue have an increased likelihood of irritability and frustration in all areas of their lives, both personal and professional.

At home, compassion fatigue might look like the inability to engage with your partner, children, or other friends and family, such as having trouble listening to problems they are sharing. At work, you might become more irritated and impatient with coworkers, bosses, and your team members, with less bandwidth to help and collaborate with them. The two areas can blur together—compassion fatigue at home can impact work, and vice versa.

What are some signs of compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue will look different for each person, and you might see signs in yourself at home, work, or both. 

Here are some signs:

  • Lacking patience with colleagues or loved ones, or acting more irritable than usual.
  • Feeling out of character compared to your typical behavior.
  • Feeling like you can’t keep it together at work despite the professional setting.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t handle the tasks on your plate.
  • Confused or blurred personal and work boundaries.
  • Keeping it together during the workday, but then snapping at your spouse or child at home.
  • Canceling meetings, or other avoidance behaviors at work.
  • Not trying as hard as usual or having a lack of motivation.
  • Being quick to anger with colleagues or bosses, or more likely to tell them what you really think without concern for ramifications.

How to overcome compassion fatigue

Once you have identified that you or your employees have compassion fatigue, it is important to remember that there are concrete steps you can take to overcome this challenge. These steps can also be used to prevent compassion fatigue from spiraling out of control.

Distinguish between compassion fatigue and other mental health conditions

Around one in five adults in the U.S. has an anxiety disorder. Someone with anxiety, for example, may have persistent, intrusive negative thoughts about a person or situation at work. On the contrary, compassion fatigue may look like an employee who is exhibiting short and irritated responses to the needs of a colleague or customer because they have limited bandwidth to meet the emotional need. One way to tell the difference is to talk to a mental health professional and ensure other mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are addressed.

Take inventory to see if basic needs are being met

When was your last day or half-day off from work? Are you or your employees able to fit in regular meals and daily exercise, or are you too overworked and not getting enough rest? Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a basic but essential place to start in your inventory: You aren’t able to care for others unless your own needs are being met, including those for security and safety, connection, and sustenance. 

If you or your employees are constantly worried about job security, you can’t give all of your attention to a project’s outcomes, or to caring about the specific needs of a complex client. Employers can conduct anonymous surveys, along with focus groups and one-on-one conversations, to gather this data.

Create sustainable boundaries

If bosses are answering emails at 10:00 p.m., there’s an unwritten expectation that others should be too. In a work culture that values true recharging, this isn’t the case. Instead, consider removing your work email from your phone, and encouraging your team to do the same. Observe consistent cutoff times for work, and your team will follow.

Institute and encourage partial and full days off for mental health, professional development, and sick days, and take them yourself as well if you are a company leader. Finally, demonstrate that break times throughout the day are valuable, such as taking an outdoor walk and sitting down for midday lunch, instead of inhaling a sandwich in front of your computer screen. Members of the leadership team can help foster these habits among employees by mirroring these behaviors themselves. These seemingly small changes will improve recharging, and transfer directly to caring for others.

The promising news is there are concrete steps you can take to address compassion fatigue in yourself and your team, and to reestablish your emotional well-being when it comes to work. For many, compassion fatigue is a temporary state, your body and mind begging for a recharge, and a healthier work-life balance. Once you listen to the signals and respond, your passion for your work, and others, will return as well.

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health, works with individuals looking to gain insight into themselves and improve their quality of life. She believes establishing a strong alliance with her clients is essential to getting the most out of therapy and creating lasting change. Through this alliance, she partners with her clients to explore and address thought and behavior patterns that serve as barriers to enjoying life fully.

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