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The Signs, Symptoms and Treatment of Compassion Fatigue

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Social workers often spend so much of their time making sure others needs are met, they neglect to properly care for their own emotional and mental health. When a person’s day-to-day job revolves around the suffering of others — and often, the indifference of so many — it’s not difficult to imagine how they may be physically and emotionally affected. Also known as “vicarious traumatization” or “secondary traumatization,” compassion fatigue refers to fatigue, emotional distress or apathy resulting from the constant caring for others or from constant appeals from charities. Even the most experienced social work professionals aren’t immune to it; Mother Teresa herself mandated that her nuns take one full year off every four to five years in order to properly heal from the strains of their everyday work.1

There are a number of ways to prevent and treat compassion fatigue, and it starts with awareness. Understanding the symptoms and signs will help social workers identify it, not only in themselves, but in fellow colleagues. Common symptoms may include isolation, poor self-care, excessive complaining while on the job, indifference, compulsive behaviors, substance abuse, recurring nightmares, preoccupation, and difficulty focusing on work.2 Social workers may begin to feel physically and emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed, and begin to feel that their work demands too much while not allowing for any forward progress.

This debilitating issue isn’t only dangerous for the individual experiencing it; clients, patients and fellow colleagues may also be affected by the negligence that compassion fatigue may lead to, whether it’s a misdiagnosis, missed work days or general apathy. That’s why the Code of Ethics of the social work profession states that it is a social worker’s responsibility to immediately seek consultation if they begin to feel that physical, emotional or mental issues are impairing their ability to perform their job.3

Compassion fatigue displays itself in various forms. The first step toward healing is seeking help, followed by a crash course in self-care. Maintaining an overall healthy, happy and socially active lifestyle can help social workers recover from compassion fatigue and keep it at bay as they resume their normal job functions. From their first day on the job, a social worker must be committed to their own personal well-being, which includes getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep and participating in a fulfilling range of social activities.

The concept of “life outside work” – or more simply, work-life balance – is critical to overcoming and avoiding compassion fatigue. While it can be difficult for a social worker to admit that this time, they’re the one in need of help, it’s an essential first step toward recovery — and continuing education is the profession’s first and best weapon against compassion fatigue. 


  1. The Instituted of American Stress, “Compassion Fatigue.”
  2. Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project, “Recognizing Compassion Fatigue.”
  3. The New Social Worker, “Compassion Fatigue: being an Ethical Social Worker.”

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