9 Ways to Combat Compassion Fatigue in the Workplace

We talk a lot about donor fatigue these days, but not so much about its workplace equivalent, compassion fatigue.

The concern about donor fatigue is understandable. We’re bombarded 24/7 with requests from charities; in the post, the press, social media, when we’re out shopping in our lunch break, paying a restaurant bill, watching TV or in JustGiving emails from friends and colleagues.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the relentlessness of need; as though there’s nothing you can do (or give) that’ll make one iota of difference.

Compassion fatigue is similar in that it comes from the same place: a feeling that nothing you can do will make a difference. But it strikes at the very people who are otherwise most motivated in their life to do just that—charity workers and people employed in caring professions.

caring professions and compassion fatigue

What do we mean by ‘compassion fatigue’?

Compassion fatigue is similar to Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) and can be extremely debilitating. It can lead to poor performance at work, stress-related mental health problems and staff absence.

It happens when someone’s so overwhelmed by the suffering and the need they’re faced with every day through the nature of their work, that they experience a burn out—leaving them mentally and emotionally unable to rise to the demands of the job, or respond to them in a way that’s appropriate and constructive.

Initially identified in caregivers—such as social workers, doctors, teachers, relief workers and counsellors—compassion fatigue is now recognised more widely in the charity sector.

Clearly some charities and some roles are at greater risk than others. For example, people whose job puts them in contact with abused children, the homeless or the terminally ill. However, forewarned can be forearmed in this respect—and people in these frontline jobs have often developed strategies that enable them to switch off when they need to. Not always, of course, but enough so that they can cope. Their employer is also more likely to be aware of the risks of the job and the need to provide support.

However, you don’t need to be in a frontline role to suffer from compassion fatigue. Day in, day out exposure to the charity’s purpose—the hard-hitting imagery, the fundraising literature, case studies and insurmountable stats—can wear away at a person’s world view.

They can lose the ability to balance the charity’s work with a healthy appreciation of the good things in life.

compassion fatigue at work

So, how can you protect and support your employees?

Unlike donor fatigue, combating compassion fatigue is not about trying to find new ways to persuade or motivate. It’s about spotting the signs that an employee or colleague has had enough and needs time out from the emotional demands of their job.

There are also many things you can do to protect staff from developing compassion fatigue in the first place:

1. Identify areas most at risk and establish support systems

Determine the teams and roles that could be most vulnerable to this kind of stress. Train managers to know the signs that someone’s struggling to cope and give them the authority to step in and get support from the organisation.

2. Tell all new or prospective employees what to expect

And let them know that they should feel able to ask for support if they need it. Discuss with them the importance of developing coping methods and the need to prioritise out of work activities that’ll help them to switch off and maintain a healthy perspective.

3. Ask employees (and all new starters) if they have personal reasons for finding some things more difficult to handle than others 

If you work at a health charity, ask if there are there personal reasons why a member of your team might find a specific illness upsetting? Maybe someone in their family has died of cancer and they’d rather avoid working on projects related to this specific type of cancer (or treatment).

4. Encourage an open culture in which you check in with staff at regular team meetings

 It can also be really helpful if you, as a manager, share your coping methods and talk openly about how you relax and what you do to clear your head after hours.

combat compassion fatigue in workplace

5. Move people around and/or rotate projects

This can be an effective way of stopping people from becoming too immersed in an emotionally draining project.

6. Prioritise holidays, lunch breaks and people leaving on time

Encourage everyone to take their holidays and use their lunch breaks. You need to lead by example here and be seen to take a lunch break—and try not to set a precedent for staying late. You may not think you’re creating a culture of late nights, but the more you as a leader work after hours, the more your employees might feel obligated to stay behind as well.

Of course, workload will always mean there are occasions when people need to work late, but you should make it the exception and encourage employees to leave at a reasonable time.

If you have to send emails after hours make it clear that they’re for the next day unless there’s an emergency.

7. Encourage social club and activities

 Invest time and funds (if possible) in a social club that’s just about having fun. Don’t make everything an excuse for a fundraiser.

8. Pay attention to the working environment

Are people surrounded by images of your charity’s work every day? Are they appropriate for a place of work?

While a hard-hitting poster may be right for a fundraising campaign, it can be emotionally draining for your staff to walk past this image every day when they’re off to the loo or to make a cup of tea.

Instead, do what you can to make the office a cheerful place of work that refreshes its imagery and uses walls and noticeboards to share good news stories too. Corner off areas for time out activities (like table tennis) and think about having a quiet room too, for when people need a break.

9. Share positive news stories and campaign successes

Use your intranet site, newsletters, team meetings and email updates to share good news stories across the organisation—from the big to the small (a personal thank you letter can be just as inspiring as a successful fundraiser).

share successes to combat compassion fatigue

And if it is all getting too much and one of your team’s either come to you to let you know they’re struggling to cope—or you spot the signs that they’re losing heart and the ability to care about their job—then take it seriously. They need time out. It could be that they need more time out in their working day and a support network, or they may need a longer period off work and professional support.

Tags: charity sector, compassion fatigue, HR practices, working in the charity sector

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About the author

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.