Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Traumatic Stress

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Compassion Fatigue

The term compassion fatigue is self-explanatory. You can probably relate to the fatigue arising from compassion, yet it is not obvious how this differs from burnout. The Professional Quality of Life Model (ProQOL) is a simple way of differentiating these two syndromes, as shown in the following diagram.


Here, compassion fatigue encompasses all the negative aspects of your work, and includes burnout as well as symptoms arising from work-related trauma or secondary traumatic stress.
Burnout, often arising from a heavy workload or lack of support, can lead to exhaustion, frustration, emotional numbness or disillusionment. The onset of burnout is generally slow and insidious.

Compassion Satisfaction

When you help someone, or ease their pain, even in a small way, you might derive a sense of satisfaction that helps counteract the depleting aspects of your work. This kind of satisfaction can also spur you on to give of your best, even in the most challenging times. However, when your work is deeply fulfilling, it’s so easy to overextend yourself. That’s why it’s helpful to remain vigilant and monitor the warning signs to help prevent yourself heading towards compassion fatigue.


If you are concerned about your wellbeing, you can measure your levels of compassion satisfaction, burnout and secondary trauma by completing the validated Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) self-assessment below.

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Burnout: the cost of caring for nurses, doctors, social workers and caregivers.

If you are committed, enthusiastic or passionate about your work, it is so easy to overextend yourself and ignore your own needs. Yet, the only way to keep the fire burning is to replenish your energy. If you have a heavy workload, an exhausting schedule, and fail to find time to relax and re-charge, in time you will become depleted.


Burnout affects everyone in different ways, although the three main components include:

  • Exhaustion, which can be emotional or physical.
  • Emotional detachment.
  • Feelings of inadequacy.

The onset of burnout tends to be insidious, so it’s easy to ignore the early warning signs, which is why I encourage you to take this quick burnout test.

Click here to download the PDF with Burnout Test.

Burnout Test – Common signs and symptoms of burnout

  1. Spend a few minutes looking through this table.
  2. Place a tick against, any symptoms that you are experiencing right now, and use two ticks to indicate those symptoms that are frequent and/or severe. You will see how some symptoms listed could purely be related to stress, while others may be more indicative of burnout.
  3. Having determined the frequency or severity of any signs and symptoms that you are experiencing now, you will instinctively know whether your risk of burnout is mild, moderate or severe.
  4. If you are in the early stages of burnout, you may want to check out my book The Thriving Give. The 7 principles in the book will help you develop a comprehensive range of tools and strategies to help you master stress, enhance self-care, replenish your energy and learn to thrive, not just survive. It’s only when you thrive that you can perform at your optimum and give from a cup that’s overflowing.
  5. If your symptoms are severe, you may need to seek help from occupational health, your doctor, supervisor, or a psychotherapeutic professional. Sometimes it’s essential to step back from work and take time for rest, relaxation, replenishment and reflection. Burnout often indicates the need for a propound inner shift, rather than merely taking a holiday or changing jobs.

My book The Thriving Giver could be invaluable resource alongside professional help, and provide a clear framework for creating a life in which you thrive.

Emotionally drained
Feel overwhelmed
Withdrawn & isolated
Feel less empathy
Loss of sensitivity
Problems with intimacy in personal relationships
Avoid speaking on phone or meeting up with friends or family
More conflict in relationships
Work less effectively
Loss of enjoyment of work
Dissatisfied with work
Difficulty managing workload
Demands exceed your ability to give
Lack of motivation
Less productive
Use of alcohol or drugs to help you cope
Increased absenteeism
Want to call in sick
Physical exhaustion
Reduced immunity: frequent colds, etc.
Stop exercising
Change in appetite
Stress related symptoms:
  • digestive problems
  • headaches
  • eczema
Unable to cope with demands of life
Mental fatigue
Worries and concerns about work impact your personal life
Difficulty making decisions
Loss of self-worth
Low morale
Sense of inadequacy
Thoughts about changing
Loss of purpose
Anger at God
Question previous religious beliefs
Question the meaning of life
No longer feel your work is making a difference
Disrupted view of the world
Loss of ideals and hope
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Traumatic Stress

If you work in emergency medicine, or as a mental health professional, or any area of health or social care, you will be familiar with the challenges of witnessing the extremes of human pain, and helping those who are distressed or traumatized. Even though the trauma has not happened to you directly, you can be traumatized. If so, you may have experienced some of the signs and symptoms of traumatic stress such as:

  • heightened anxiety.
  • irrational fears.
  • easily startled.
  • trying to avoid situations that could act as potential triggers
  • feeling more vulnerable or suspicious after experiencing a traumatic incident, whereas in the past you felt confident, safe and trusting.
  • withdrawing from family or friends.

You may be familiar with the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which impacts the person who experienced the trauma personally, maybe as a result of an accident, violent assault, or natural disaster. Whether the trauma has happened to you, personally or to others, the effects are similar. Unlike burnout, secondary traumatic stress and PTSD have a sudden onset, as they are related to a particular event or situation.


If you are concerned about the detrimental impact of your work, I encourage you to complete the Professional Quality of Life (PROQOL) self-assessment questionnaire. Your scores will help determine whether you might benefit form professional help.

More resources relating to
Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Traumatic Stress.

Download Professional Quality of Life

Download The Burnout Test