The Risk of Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma

The need to care for others has never been more evident than now. The demands being placed on healthcare workers, first responders, and mental health professionals rival that of other tragic historical moments such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 when the demands exceed that of the system’s capabilities to meet them. What we are experiencing as a society is a collective traumatization. We are all going through the same experience at the same time on a global scale. In one sense, it is comforting to know that we are not alone, and this shared experience can bring us closer together. On the other hand, because of the magnitude of suffering, resources are not sufficient right now. Whereas we typically look to the medical and healthcare system to treat our ailments, and the mental health system to relieve our mental and emotional suffering, the people within those systems are now at the same risk physically and mentally as the rest of us. Our normal helpers are needing to be helped just as much right now. Additionally, those who are not normally caregivers are stepping into these roles to assume care for their children full time, at-risk family members, elderly parents, and so on. And then, where do we turn to find care for ourselves? To find the time to process what is happening in the world and to grieve life as we knew it? 

Are YOU Helping Others? Keeping Reading!

The terms burnout, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue are becoming more widespread. The terms are typically related to the helping professionals such as therapists, EMTs, police officers, social workers, doctors, and nurses. However, anyone can experience the negative effects of helping others, bearing witness to another’s pain, and burning out in a job. Although all three terms have similarities in how they manifest and are treated, there are some distinct differences. 

Vicarious Trauma

Vicarious trauma is the process by which a person absorbs the emotional pain and traumatic experience of the victim they are interacting with, to the point that they themselves may start experiencing physical and mental symptoms similar to that of the victim. If you have a friend that experienced the loss of a loved one due to COVID, trying to carry their burden, along with your own fears about your health and that of your family’s well-being can be challenging, and puts you at risk for developing vicarious trauma as you hear about a friend or family member’s trauma. 


Burnout is defined as “…a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations” (Morissette, 2004, pp. 93-94). Burnout is not an outcome of being exposed to trauma, like vicarious trauma, but rather a response to chronic overload in a work setting. You may find that your work has increased during this time. For example, those in the banking world have increased work and long hours due to working around the clock to secure relief funds for small businesses. Although you may enjoy your job, the recent change in circumstances can be a risk for burnout. 

Compassion Fatigue

Lastly, compassion fatigue is defined as “…the behaviors and emotion resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other – the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Morrissette, 2004, p. 54). For example, compassion fatigue can emerge from volunteer work during this crisis where the suffering is great, and the resources are low. While you may normally enjoy and even be energized by helping others, the constant flow of need without an end in sight can become a heavy burden to bear. 

Don’t Fear, Be Informed

In all these scenarios, there are common emotional, cognitive, physical, and behavioral symptoms that can alert you that you may be at risk for developing issues related to helping others. These are not things to fear, but rather be informed of. Symptoms are our body and mind’s way of telling us “please take care of me, something is going off track here.” Symptoms are like our car’s maintenance alert system. It’s a signal that we need to take caution and pay attention to what our needs are. Symptoms that are common between all three include (but are not limited to), increased irritability, avoidance of certain topics, situations, or people that trigger uncomfortable feelings, difficulty concentrating, shifts in cognitive perspectives such as believing the world is a dangerous place, people can’t be trusted, loss of hope in humanity, etc., sleep disturbances, fear, frustration, overwhelm, resentment, exhaustion, and social withdrawal. It can be hard to determine what’s a “normal” reaction during this unprecedented time, but if you notice these symptoms are persisting, or others are noticing a change in you as well, take a moment to check in with yourself and lean in to caring for yourself as best you can. 

Treatment Is First Awareness and Then…

Thankfully, the antidote, or treatment for any of these conditions is first awareness, and then engaging in restorative activities. It looks different for different people but involves the basics: healthy nutrition, exercise (which can be as easy as a walk around the block), connection with family, reading or writing, or some form of creating (painting, drawing, journaling), meditating (sitting in silence), and mindfulness (paying attention to what’s happening in the moment). It can also include more structured interventions, like checking in with a therapist or coach to process difficult feelings related to suffering. It may also look like taking a break or setting up boundaries around how much you can help. Healthcare workers may not have that luxury, but the simple act of engaging in small acts of self-care after a shift can mitigate the effects of the weight immensely. Bottom line, left unchecked, burnout, vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue can take away the very thing we are meant to do: help others. Right now, what we can control is how we care for ourselves, albeit with limited means, but we can, nonetheless. 

“The most powerful givers also give to themselves.” (Career Contessa)

Morrissette, P. J. (2004). The pain of helping: Psychological injury of helping professionals. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

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