Compassion Fatigue: What You Need to Know


Caring too much can actually hurt you. Compassion Fatigue (CF) is a real medical phenomenon that occurs in caregivers who are exposed to suffering and don’t take care of themselves as well as they should.

There is just no avoiding some fatigue. However, learning what CF is, who it affects, and how it affects the elderly in your care can help protect everyone involved so that caregiving can bring greater satisfaction and remain positive.

Compassion Fatigue Defined 

Compassion Fatigue is a state of exhaustion brought about from overexposure to the suffering of others. Charles Figley, PhD at Tulane University is known as the father of the CF model and first discovered it when working with combat veterans from the Vietnam War in the 1970s. According to him, as people are exposed to higher levels of suffering, their empathic responses increase, they suffer compassion stress and then they experience lower resistance to compassion fatigue.

Simply put, the more time you spend caring for others, the harder it becomes to avoid CF.

Who is at Risk for CF? 

Any caregiver can develop CF. The most likely to succumb to the emotional and physical phenomenon are those who have higher empathic abilities and a greater concern for the client or patient. In most cases, those at greatest risk for CF are family caregivers who watch their loved ones go through the most trying of times. It is harder for family caregivers to be resilient to the stresses of caregiving when there is such a blurred line between personal investment and providing care; this is a distinction easier for professional caregivers to make. However, professional caregivers who work in hospice care are at greater risk for CF.

Caregivers of patients or family members with dementia and other cognitive or emotional conditions had a higher risk factor for burnout.

Another distinction made with caregiving is the presence of psychiatric problems in the elderly person. Caregivers of patients or family members with dementia and other cognitive or emotional conditions had a higher risk factor for burnout. They were also found to have higher rates of compassion fatigue.

Those who saw their caregiving as satisfying were less prone to CF, according a study on geriatric psychiatry and caregiving. Those new to the profession or younger family members had a higher rate of CF than those who had been caregiving for longer.

How Caregiving Fatigue Affects the Caregiver

CF is unique to the “relationship between oneself and those one cares for.” CF is a constant state of emotional stress with the end result being burnout. Symptoms of CF include:

  • Reduced empathy for clients
  • Expressed hopelessness
  • Exhaustion
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Feeling completely overwhelmed

Caregiving fatigue doesn’t just affect the caregiver, though. A caregiver with CF will be less able to provide the quality care needed to keep the elderly person safe. A greater lack of attention to details can cause things to be missed such as important questions to ask the doctor, safety hazard risks, and an increase in expressed anger at a client or family member. Mistakes are also likely to be made when dispensing medication.

Preventing Compassion Fatigue 

The only way to protect yourself from CF is to practice good self-care techniques. Good self-care cannot be stressed enough. Some research suggests that the most effective self-care techniques to combat CF in particular are ones that focus the most on establishing a healthy work-life balance, as opposed to eating right and exercising.

To increase CF resilience, Figley suggests desensitizing to common stressors, which just takes time and experience. Practical ways to begin doing that are to avoid seeing yourself as a “savior” and understand that the health failures of the person you are caring for are not a personal reflection on you.

Caregiving is naturally an emotionally consuming endeavor. When a caregiver can gain a greater sense of satisfaction in their compassionate role, they will reduce the risk for CF and burnout. It isn’t something that can be forced. It can be developed as a caregiver’s role evolves into a more flexible and supportive one rather than an all-encompassing one that takes on too much of the emotional burden of saving patients and feeling responsible for their health outcomes.




Hill, R, Vaccarino, O., and Daly, K.J. (2015). Understanding Compassion Fatigue. Guelph, ON: Community Engaged Scholarship Institute. Available at Last Visited March 10, 2016.

Figley, Charles, PhD. (2014). A Generic Model of Compassion Fatigue Resilience Available at Last Visited March 10, 2016.

Thomas, P., Billon, R., Chaumier, J. A., Barruche, G., Thomas, C.H. (2014). Psycho-Social Hazards for Staff in Geriatrics and Geriatric Psychiatry. Open Journal of Psychiatry, 4(2). Available at Last Visited March 10, 2016.